If there’s one thing that’s consistently true about 2020, it’s this: no person or business has been immune to its challenges. This includes the grocery industry, which didn’t pause when Covid-19 swept the planet. In fact, if anything, an explosion of demand for food items, toiletries and household goods made grocery stores more central to people’s lives than ever.
A massive leap for e-commerce
Meghann Martindale, global head of retail research at CBRE, says that 2020 has seen a massive increase in e-commerce adoption in the grocery sector.
“At the end of 2019, grocery e-commerce penetration was only about 3%. That surged to somewhere between 15–20%, and my guess is that it’s going to stabilise around 8% in 2020.” Therefore, she says, “depending on the data you’re looking at, e-commerce grocery growth accelerated by 3–5 years due to Covid-19.”
In the long run, Martindale expects many customers will return to stores either due to dissatisfactory experiences with grocery delivery or simply out of a desire to hand-select their products, particularly speciality products and produce.
Natalie Cantave, who lives in the Boston area, certainly falls into this camp. “When the Covid-19 pandemic started, I used grocery delivery a few times,” she says. However, due to the inconvenience of delivery timeframes and a preference for selecting certain grocery items herself, she returned to purchasing her own groceries in store once the lockdowns eased in her neighbourhood. “Grocery delivery works for pasta and boxed goods” without variance, she says, “but I really want to pick my own produce” for quality control purposes.
Globally, a trend towards more convenience shopping and in some cases restrictions on movement has led to conflicting trends.
The importance of proximity means that some households are purchasing the same volume of items as pre-pandemic but paying higher prices. This is the case for Ashley Pii in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “Pricier supermarkets are more accessible for me than the average ones,” she explains, so although her household’s weekly grocery purchase volume has remained the same, her overall spending on food has increased this year.
Joice Carrido-Carrera in General Trias, the Philippines, has also seen an increase in her grocery bills during quarantine. “Weekly spending has gone up a bit, by around 10%,” she says. However, she’s unsure as to whether this is specifically due to the pandemic or if it is due in part to other lifestyle changes in her household which they had made pre-pandemic.
In Kolkata, India, the country’s strict lockdown has caused Nupur Chowdhury’s family to eat out much less and therefore increase weekly spending on groceries to cook more at home. Similarly, as a result of India’s continued lockdown, she notes, “the frequency [with which] we use grocery delivery has increased since the pandemic as we go out less often, so it’s easier to have things delivered if we can’t just pick up groceries on our way back from work like we used to.”
The combination of economic pressure and limited choices in stores also have led more shoppers to choose store brands. “Because of the weak economic condition of many consumers globally, we’ve seen a lot of consumers go to private labels and lower price points if they’ve been financially impacted,” says Martindale, “and that’s something to keep in mind because the economic recovery isn’t going to be equal globally.”
Shoppers’ desires for lower prices may also affect the composition of the grocery industry itself. IGD Retail Analysis predicts that discount grocers will become the fastest-growing channel in 2021 and 2022, due to shoppers’ needs to economise amidst rising unemployment.
The ‘new normal’
In the long term, it seems likely that many customers’ “new normal” for buying groceries will combine old habits and beneficial behaviours that they’ve adopted during quarantines. This is certainly the case for Lauren Branigan in New York City, who has continued to purchase her groceries in person throughout the Covid-19 pandemic but adapted the time and location of her grocery runs to reduce her transmission risk.
“I try to plan in advance so I don’t have to go to the grocery store terribly often, and when I go I try to go during off hours (afternoon, early morning, late at night).” She has also changed her grocery store of choice.
“I used to go to Trader Joe’s and drop a pretty penny, but now there’s a line around the block to get in. Because I’m going to my local supermarket, I’m less inclined to buy [unnecessary items].”
Even after the threat of the pandemic eases, Branigan expects to continue pre-planning meals to streamline weekly grocery shopping. She also predicts her newly honed cooking skills may lead her to cook at home more often that she did prior to 2020.
By Lorelei Yang