Covid-19’s long-term impact on food buying habits

24 February 2021, 09:28 AM
  • What changes in consumer behaviour can fine food retailers expect to see in 2021 and beyond? We explore the emerging trends
Covid-19’s long-term impact on food buying habits

Covid-19’s effect on consumer food shopping trends has been clear over the past year – retailers have noted the rise in home cooking with increased sales, and the comfort food trend and the desire for treating oneself with small luxuries have also made themselves known.

What’s not quite as simple is predicting what’s coming next. However, research is starting to uncover what the long-term impacts of the pandemic might be. According to data from ThoughtWorks, two-thirds of people in the UK have adopted new food buying habits that they intend to stick with in the long term. Four in five people, meanwhile, have changed the way they think about and consume their food due to repeated lockdowns.

Sustainability and environment

Environmental issues were shown to be important to consumers: the data found that more than a third of people now say they will reduce the amount of food waste they produce, while just under a quarter of people said they had become more conscious of the environmental impact of their food while in lockdown.

Further insights from Kantar’s Covid-19 Barometer reveal that Millennials and Generation Z now want to see action from the brands they support. And as Dr Susanne O’Gorman, global head of customer experience at Kantar’s Insights Division, notes, younger consumers’ experiences during the pandemic will have a lasting impact on their values, attitudes and behaviours.

While Boomers expect brands to be “practical and realistic and help consumers in their everyday life”, younger generations said it was most important that brands “act as an example and guide change” – and sustainability is one area where fine food brands can set themselves apart.

“The fact that brands are regarded as role models amongst the younger generations is a double-edged sword. Any inconsistency between action and words will be scrutinised and amplified via social media,” she adds. “At the same time, it offers huge opportunities for brands to differentiate, but authenticity is crucial. Customers not only need to hear what the brand stands for in marketing and communication, but be able to experience this.”

Digital and local

The shift to digital shopping was also apparent in ThoughtWorks’ data, with 22% saying they will continue to shop online even after lockdown – younger people were twice as likely to say this. Indeed, recent ONS data showed that a record number of grocery sales took place online in January.

At the same time, 31% said they will buy more locally produced food to support their local economy and community.

Kevin Flynn, director of retail strategy at ThoughtWorks told Speciality Food that these trends point to deeper changes in consumer behaviour. “When talking about the pandemic and the food industry, many limit attention to the shift to online. Whilst this is indeed a foundational aspect of the change occurring, it does not describe the human aspect of the shift that is beginning.”

“Covid has not simply accelerated the digitisation of food shopping… it has accelerated our love of food and our awareness of its importance in our lives and those of our communities.”

Shopping is only one aspect of the food experience, Kevin said, and today’s consumers want to know the stories behind their food – an area where the fine food sector excels. “Communities now more than ever delight in access to rich information about produce, where we can discuss and share recipes, our stories, access to produce made down the road or from the far-flung corners of the world. We expect much more than a transactional shopping experience – what would fine food be without the story behind the produce?”

In-home vs out-of-home

It’s no surprise that Covid-19 has shifted spending from foodservice to retail channels, but how will this change in 2021? IGD’s recent Eating In vs Dining Out 2021 report looked into this, and found that despite food and drink retail sales growing nearly 10% over 2020, the overall food and drink market declined by 12% thanks to the closure of the foodservice sector. As the eating out market shrank by over 50%, the grocery retail share of the market grew from 64% in 2019 to 81% in 2020.

What can retailers expect as the vaccine rollout continues and the hospitality sector is eventually allowed to reopen? Peter Backman, foodservice consultant, expects consumer confidence to increase in the second half of the year, shifting the scales back towards a more even split between in-home and out-of-home eating. Nicola Knight, senior retail analyst at IGD, expects a return to pre-Covid shopping habits as businesses reopen, albeit with more frugal habits emerging.

“In the short term, whilst eating out remains largely ‘closed’, the food and grocery retail market will need to deliver for food and drink shoppers that have few alternatives. This will manifest itself in high levels of demand for online. For out-of-home, the agility with which operators responded in 2020 will need to continue in the face of continued unpredictability,” Peter said.

While 2021 will continue to bring changes to consumer shopping habits, it’s unlikely that any shifts as dramatic as those seen in 2020 will be recorded. But by tracking these behavioural changes, retailers can be sure they’re providing consumers with exactly what they’re looking for.

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