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Without a doubt, the word of 2020-2021 was ‘unprecedented’. It filled headlines and TV screens as experts scrambled to make sense of the Covid-19 pandemic and the way it was changing our lives. But even as the virus appears to be loosening its grip on the UK, the food sector is left with questions: are Covid’s influences here to stay or will things go back to normal after the restrictions are lifted?
According to Morgaine Gaye, food futurologist, we should give up the idea of a return to ‘normal’. “I don’t think anything will go back to what it was,” she tells Speciality Food. “You often hear people say ‘I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.’ That’s not going to ever happen again. This is normal.”
In some cases, Covid has simply solidified consumer behaviours that were already taking shape. Online food shopping was making marginal gains for years, but since the pandemic hit it has soared to record highs. As Covid-19 fades and physical stores continue to make a comeback, online shopping will continue – though not to as great an extent.
“The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the growth of online shopping, and whilst we expect to see some slowing of the trend, we don’t expect it to return to pre-Covid levels,” explains Michael Freedman, senior shopper insight manager at IGD. Indeed, recent data from Kantar revealed that online grocery sales accounted for 12.4% of the total grocery market for the second month in a row in October.
Independents have found success with the online experience, through click and collect, delivery and even drive-through models. These created new ways to cater to customers locally and nationally as demand for their products grew.
While the online trend will continue, Kevin Flynn, director of retail strategy at ThoughtWorks, believes virtual experiences won’t be the only thing customers are craving – real-world experiences are “far from dead”. A survey by Gekko corroborated this, with 70% of respondents having planned to visit stores as much or more than pre-pandemic as soon as non-essential retail reopened. “As we emerge from the pandemic there will be a surge in people wanting to get outside and engage with eating and shopping once again,” Kevin says.
One trend that may vanish in the post-Covid world, however, is the big weekly shop. As consumers began to feel safe enough to visit the shops more often, the return of the ‘top-up’ shop started. Data from Kantar in October showed that consumer habits were settling at a new baseline, with the trend for bigger, less frequent shops set to stay. But the return of this familiar consumer behaviour brings opportunities for indies. “This return to top-up shopping and a growth in confidence to ‘shop around’ is an opportunity for specialist retailers, especially as provenance and supporting local businesses is a shopper priority, which once again, has been driven by the pandemic,” Michael says.
Thanks to the easing of lockdown restrictions, retailers can now focus on building loyalty with existing customers and attracting new ones by positioning themselves as a shopping destination. “We see opportunities to attract people to shop in-person at specialist retailers to hand-pick items to supplement their regular online grocery shopping. This is particularly appealing to those shoppers who are looking to focus more on quality when purchasing food and groceries. For some shoppers, there is an emphasis on food shopping becoming an experience to enjoy, given the current restrictions relating to social life.”
Speciality Food has documented the rise of the health shopper over the course of the Covid-19 crisis, but it’s important to note that this trend will stay relevant in a post-pandemic world.
The immunity trend will also be of particular interest to the everyday consumer who is looking to boost their personal wellbeing. “Everything will be immunity – ‘with added immunity’, ‘this helps with your immunity’. That’ll be the newest marketing watch word,” Morgaine says.
Functional foods, which offer benefits in addition to their basic nutritional value, will also play into consumer demands for food experiences and products that boost their mental health. “We’ve already seen the beginning of this trend of people wanting food that does something – it makes you calm, it makes you sleepy, it makes you feel something not just ‘oh that’s delicious’,” Morgaine says.
New consumer research carried by taste and nutrition company Kerry found that the functional beverage category will gain traction as new products target holistic attitudes towards health, diet and lifestyle. Its survey of consumers in the UK and elsewhere in Europe revealed that when asked about health concerns that have become more important since the Covid-19 outbreak, 59% said immunity, and half said mental health.
“Consumers are willing to pay a premium for beverages with a functional benefit and will repurchase if that benefit is proven to work. This means that manufacturers need to use ingredients that are backed by science and trusted by consumers,” says Breda Kelly, Kerry’s nutritional beverage lead for Europe and Russia.
As the popularity of functional foods shows, conscious consumers expect more from their food today. But beyond this, they also want it to tell the story of where it comes from or how it was produced – and this desire is only going to grow. “We are moving into a golden era of food,” Kevin says. “The quality of food is being reframed by the consumer to incorporate broader perspectives about topics such as importance to local economies, the environment, climate change and animal welfare. I believe fine food is well placed to be at the forefront of this debate.”
Morgaine and Michael agree that food awareness is growing. “We’re just caring a little bit more about our food,” Morgaine says, “and I think that will definitely continue. I think what consumers want is meaning. People want to be involved, they want to feel connected. They want to find ways to connect with people.” For a retailer, this means continuing to focus on what they do best – connecting with customers, telling the stories of local products and showing shoppers why they should care about the food they eat.
This article was originally published in June 2021.