Economic Tidbits

Shifts in Consumer Food Purchases

Foods with Largest Purchase Increases

COVID-19 has dramatically changed consumers’ food purchases. Prior to the pandemic, more food was consumed away from home than in home. With COVID-19 and the stay-at-home orders and restrictions on restaurants, consumer purchases have shifted to food to be prepared at home.

The website, Food Dive, examined changes in consumer food purchases between March and October compared to the same period last year to see which food categories were the biggest winners and losers with the shift. Figures 2 and 3 show food categories which were the biggest winners and losers in terms of year-to-year changes. Figure 4 shows changes for selected products including meat and dairy and their alternatives.

The biggest winners from the food purchases shift were oat milk, yeast, crab, meat alternatives, and lobster. Observers think consumers increased at-home baking and desire for different in-home eating experiences explain the increased sales of yeast, crab, and lobster. Experimentation with new and different foods, and empty shelves of certain products, drove sales of alternative products like oat milk and meat alternatives. However, there’s likely a math quirk at work here too. Changes to smaller numbers (a smaller baseline) result in larger percentages. Adding one unit of sales to one unit of sales is a 100 percent increase. Adding one unit to 100 units of sales is a 1 percent increase. So, the fact that sales of oat milk increased 212 percent, while noticeable, is partly the result of starting from a small base.

Foods or products typically stocked in displays at checkout lines like gum or mints were the biggest sales losers compared to last year. Consumers are ordering groceries online and not making their usual impulse purchases. Sales of nutrition bars were also off. Observers speculate that fewer trips to the gym are resulting in fewer sales of protein bars.

The country is in the midst of another COVID-19 surge. The possibility of a vaccine being available soon holds promise for a return to normalcy sometime next year. Research by Glynn Tonsor and Jayson Lusk, agricultural economists at Kansas State University and Purdue University respectively, suggest a minority of consumers, 20 percent, will immediately purchase more dine-in meals with the availability of a vaccine while a near majority, 45 percent, would slowly increase their purchases. Thus, it seems the changes in food purchases resulting from more in-home food preparation might continue through next year.

Figure 2. Foods with Largest Purchase Increases

Foods with Largest Purchase Increases

 Source: Lillianna Byington, Food Dive, Oct. 28, 2020

Figure 3. Foods with Largest Purchase Declines

Foods with Largest Purchase Declines

Source: Lillianna Byington, Food Dive, Oct. 28, 2020

Figure 4. Changes in Select Food Products

Changes in Select Food Products
Source:  Lillianna Byington, Food Dive, Oct. 28, 2020

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