- Consumers in the U.S. went into full-on pantry stocking mode after President Donald Trump first acknowledged the threat of coronavirus to the nation in a late-February press conference, according to statistics Nielsen emailed to Food Dive. Compared to 2019, sales of many staples zoomed upward in the four weeks ending on March 7. Sales growth was especially high the week of March 1 to 7, compared to the previous year.
- In the first week of March, oat milk sales were up 347.3%, dried beans sales rose 62.9%, tuna sales were up 31.2%, and dried milk sales were up 126.3%. It wasn't just pantry staples that increased, though. Sales of fresh meat alternatives increased 206.4% compared to last year, and kombucha sales were up 10.1%. But not all sections of the grocery store benefited from consumers' stock-up frenzy. Produce sales were down, with apple sales falling 3.2% compared to last year and celery sales dropping 18.7%.
- Nielsen also saw steep decreases in sales of several health and medical sanitizing products from Jan. 30, the day of the first person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 in the United States, and Trump's Feb. 26 press conference. The week ending Feb. 8 — two weeks after the U.S.-based case of the virus, Nielsen found sales of hand sanitizers, medical masks and household maintenance masks dropped in a week by 4%, 47% and 53%, respectively. Nielsen did not know if this was because items were out of stock.
As millions of U.S. consumers stocked up on essentials to prepare for long stretches of time at home to slow the spread of coronavirus, Nielsen statistics show a lot of them bought food that will sustain them for the long haul.
The U.S. is following a potentially transformative pattern that many other countries that have already seen more severe coronavirus outbreaks have gone through. The first phase, proactive health-minded buying, is slow consumption growth in response to general news and threats of coronavirus-related infections. Reactive health management is the next phase, where consumers stock up on vital medical and cleaning goods, like hand sanitizer, soap and antibacterial wipes. The third phase, which Nielsen said the United States transitioned to after Trump's Feb. 26 press conference, is pantry preparation.
And many Americans certainly seem to be preparing for a long-term period of isolation. According to Nielsen, powdered milk sales, which had been down 3.3% in the beginning of February compared to last year, increased 84.4% in the last week of the month. Sales of dried beans and canned meat were up more than 30% the last week in February, and chickpeas, rice, tuna and black beans were all up more than 20%.
These numbers bode well for some of the nation's largest food companies. Earlier this month, analysts from Bernstein said pantry stock-up buying would most likely benefit companies such as Campbell Soup; Conagra Brands, which has several frozen brands; General Mills and Kellogg, which dominate cereal; Mondelez International and Kellogg, which have several cracker brands; J.M. Smucker, which has peanut butter, jams and jellies; and Kraft Heinz for its blue box macaroni and cheese.
President Trump had a phone call on Sunday with leaders of some big food and grocery companies, including Campbell Soup, Tyson, Cargill, Kraft Heinz, General Mills, PepsiCo, Post Holdings, Walmart, Target, Ahold Delhaize, Kroger and Albertsons. According to a summary of the call prepared for the media, Trump thanked the executives for their work so far, continuing that "this is an all-of-America approach and each of their stores and the stores they support can help Americans feel calm and safe when shelves are stocked with the items they need."
While some of the Nielsen's statistics don't necessarily point to pantry prep, it's likely that massive growth in some products is reflected in these statistics. Oat milk has been super-trendy, with analysts saying market giant Oatly has seen triple digit annual growth prior to the pandemic. In the last year, more major companies have brought their own oat milk brands to the shelf, including Danone and Chobani, so it's natural that the category would see massive growth. There has also been a major expansion in the number of fresh meat alternatives on grocers' shelves in the last year, with CPG launches from Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat and Nestlé.
In Nielsen's analysis, the next step of consumption is quarantined living preparation, which the U.S. may be in the midst of now, considering the empty shelves and crowded stores during the weekend. Nielsen said this step will be defined by online shopping infrastructure being put to the test. The fifth step is restricted living, during which the market intelligence firm predicts supply chain constraints and less discretion from consumers may result in higher prices for CPG and hygienic goods.
Scott McKenzie, Nielsen’s Global Intelligence Leader, said in the report it's important for those in the market to identify spending patterns so supply of vital items can be maintained as the nation moves through these phases.
“We’re already seeing additional markets enter the threshold of 'restricted living,'" he said in a statement. "As patterns begin to emerge in response to news events of this nature, it will be imperative for companies to learn from these scenarios so they can sustain growth even in times where COVID-19 has uprooted people’s lives. These patterns will help provide leading and trailing indicators to those trying to understand how people will respond as developments continue to play out at different times in different countries.”
Nielsen's last phase, which it said only China has reached at this point, is living a new normal. The buying patterns adopted during the outbreak are likely to have a lasting impact on consumers. And while they may not continue to stockpile dried beans and powdered milk, they may be more likely to rely on the online shopping apps they discovered during this period or place new emphasis on nutritional labels to look for healthier food.