From Grocery Shopping to Cooking to Snacking out of Distraction, the Pandemic Has Transformed Many Existing Behaviors

Young couple thinking on the kitchen

As we noted in a prior “Part One” to this artic le, we are living through an era distinguished by trends in consumer behavior that have been accelerated, altered or accentuated by the pandemic: While some of these trends are supercharged both socially and culturally (for example, our newfound focus on social justice, racial equality, employee welfare and the fragility of the food supply system), others, like shopping for groceries and cooking, are practices in flux that prior to COVID-19 seemed almost mundane. As we move forward into the summer of 2021 — in the context of promising trends in vaccinations and states opening fully for business — many of these behavioral changes will be in transition as consumers adapt to changing perceptions of safety and risk and explore access to a wider array of food experiences outside the home.

Accelerated and Altered: In-store and Online Grocery Shopping

As many of us know (and experienced), how we shop for groceries underwent huge changes during the pandemic — online grocery shopping showed significant acceleration while in-person shopping within food retailers became altered as a “ journey of safety” as shoppers, fraught with worries about the virus, planned well in advance, masked up, stocked up and got in and out of grocery stores as quickly as they could. We documented the meteoric rise of online shopping in our Food Sourcing in America report, which found that in summer 2020, 56% of shoppers said they had bought groceries online in the past 30 days. Additionally, 27% of shoppers said they shopped online for groceries more than before COVID-19, and 14% said they had shopped online for groceries for the very first time. In terms of safety and in-store shopping, Food Sourcing in America also found that with regard to wearing masks in grocery stores, 40% said they were doing it at the time of the research, and 40% of those thought they'd continue such behavior post-pandemic.

How will these grocery shopping behaviors change going forward? As consumers look forward to a moment when they might feel safer shopping in person in stores, some say they are eager to return to how they shopped prior to the pandemic, while others fall somewhere in between practicing current behaviors and what they did pre-pandemic. Online grocery shopping may continue some of its momentum as adaptive use made during the pandemic becomes normalized and appreciated for its convenience, but to retain new online shoppers (who have primarily shifted to the online version of their preferred brick-and-mortar banner), the in-store and online shopping experiences should share similar features, and transition between the two should be as seamless as possible.

Accelerated, Altered and Accentuated: The Rise and Fall of Our Enthusiasm for Cooking

Certainly one of the most volatile trends within food culture during the pandemic has been the rise and fall in enthusiasm for cooking at home, hence our observation that the cooking trend was both altered and accelerated by national events (including “stay at home” orders and restaurant closures). Cooking as an activity of discovery has also been accentuated by the pandemic, driving more consumers to online resources for instruction, ingredients and inspiration as well as encouraging improvisation in recipes and heightened engagement between family members. And yet, as we’ve reported in our Eating Occasions 2020 report, despite our initial shift to cooking, our enthusiasm did not last throughout 2020 as cooking fatigue quickly set in. Heading into the fall of 2020, Eating Occasions 2020 reported that heavy levels of food preparation declined, and consumers became more comfortable with sourcing from restaurants. Shifts in levels of food preparation varied by daypart, with lunch occasions much more likely to involve moderate levels of preparation, at 27% (up 6 percentage points from 2019) and dinner occasions slightly more likely to involve heavy preparation, at 26% (up 3 percentage points from 2019, not a significant change). When looking at the entire year of the pandemic, the decline in restaurant-sourced occasions was only slightly offset by occasions that involved heavy levels of food preparation at home.

Accelerated and Altered: Snacking out of Distraction

Snacking 2020

Even prior to the pandemic, we were already a nation of snackaholics, and with all the couch time at home during the pandemic, our snacking tendencies soared: Our Snacking: Emerging, Evolving and Disrupted report found 35% of consumers saying they snacked more often in 2020 compared to the previous year. As might be expected, the increase in snacking (an eating behavior that is highly vulnerable to lifestyle changes) reflected the chaotic pandemic times and the diversity of changes occurring in consumer lifestyles. While some level of “aimless” snacking had always taken place in recent decades, the tumultuous events of 2020 elevated “Distracted” snacking to the status of its own pillar (within The Hartman Group’s Modern Snacking Framework along with Nourishment, Optimization and Pleasure). Distracted snacking includes special emphasis on snacking due to both boredom and stress, and with the new normal of COVID-19, snacking for Distraction took on new relevance and prominence in the lives of many consumers. Its inclusion within our Modern Snacking Framework aligns to how consumers understand changes in their own snacking habits, including being less mobile than in previous years. Snacking: Emerging, Evolving and Distracted finds that 40% of all snacking reflects some need for Distraction. While snacking for Distraction has always been present for consumers and is regularly viewed as a problematic, less intentional approach to snacking, this driver took on more significance in 2020. The frequency of this driver among all snacking occasions has increased significantly since 2019 (by 8 percentage points), and feelings of boredom are over twice as likely to occur during snacking occasions when compared to meals.

Hartman Insights:

The pandemic has altered consumers’ schedules, increased their time at home, changed work environments, reduced social interactions, transformed grocery shopping, food procurement and meal preparation, isolated household units and shifted emotional states in the direction of both boredom and heightened anxiety.

With these changes, shopping, cooking and snacking needs and routines have also evolved. As we move forward into 2021, despite improvements in some conditions relating to COVID-19, life will remain uncertain for the foreseeable future, disrupting consumers’ routines and keeping them in a heightened state of flux.

Solutions that can reduce stress by delivering modern convenience and minimizing cognitive load are therefore advisable. Manufacturers, retailers and food service providers can increase consumer trust by becoming more transparent about policies and practices, particularly those regarding safety.

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