Walking into a grocery store during the pandemic was a different experience — some shelves were unexpectedly cleared out, while others were filled with unwanted products.
As consumer lifestyles have shifted over the past seven months, so have their shopping habits. More than four out of five consumers said the pandemic pushed them to cook, consume, buy and think about food differently, according to the International Food Information Council.
So what categories ended up being the winners and losers for sales during the pandemic? Using data collected by Nielsen, Food Dive examined the food and beverage categories that saw the biggest increases and decreases in dollar sales since March.
Oat milk, yeast, meat alternatives, crab and lobster were the five products in the food and beverage categories in the Nielsen data that saw the largest increase in dollar sales during the 31-week period, which equates to roughly seven months of the pandemic, ending Oct. 3.
With consumers quarantining at home, many turned to their ovens for comfort. Bread-making became big business. Instead of buying premade cupcakes and dessert bars, which both saw decreases in sales, consumers bought the ingredients to make breads and baked goods themselves. Yeast sales jumped 156% from the same period last year and many customers spent weeks trying to find a bag of flour.
"Maximizing the home experience included a shift to at-home cooking, baking and entertainment. As a result, cooking and baking staples, along with snacking categories witnessed growth during the pandemic, while categories that align with the pre-pandemic on-the-go lifestyle had stalled," Nicole Peranick, senior director of retail transformation at Daymon, said. "Given that we are seemingly entering into a second wave of the pandemic amidst the start of the holiday season, we can expect shoppers to continue to seek solutions that allow them to make the most of their new home-based lifestyle in the immediate term, while continuing to embrace these renewed home values well into 2021."
Even as the economy has pushed consumers to tighten their purse strings, some expensive products, like crab and lobster, saw sales increases. Barb Renner, U.S. consumer products leader at Deloitte, said that while consumers are being more fiscally responsible, more are investing in family experiences at home, whether it be a luxury meal or baking bread as a family.
“It's an experience. Making food at home is very different than going out to a restaurant, so maybe where you spend $100 at a restaurant you're willing to spend more on food that you're making at home,” Renner said.
Fresh food like seafood was in demand during this time. According to a study conducted by Deloitte, 65% of shoppers were sometimes unable to purchase fresh food they wanted because it was out of stock and one in four said that occurred often or almost always.
But as the economic downturn continues, Peranick said consumers may increasingly turn to cheaper options. Peranick said 50% of shoppers believe they have seen a price increase due to the coronavirus.
"With tighter budgets and the perception of inflated prices in mind, shoppers will be more inclined to gravitate to private brands as they seek to stretch their dollars without compromising on quality," Peranick said.
Meanwhile, categories that saw the biggest decreases were mints, gum, dessert bars, cupcakes and performance nutrition bars. (Food Dive excluded bulk sales products.)
A major reason snack bars, mints and gum saw sales declines was because many consumers turned to online grocery shopping during the pandemic. Across the board, the products that typically are bought in impulse purchases were down.
“We have also experienced a decrease in retail foot traffic and volatility in consumer shopping and consumption behavior across several areas of our portfolio, which has negatively impacted sales of our portable and on-the-go consumption products,” Hershey, which makes Ice Breakers mints, said in a filing in May. "Sales in our gum and mint category have also been significantly impacted by social distancing protocols.”
In addition to gyms being closed, which may have reduced the need for performance nutrition bars, the snack bar category overall saw sales slip during quarantine, but Bernstein analysts said that long-term growth will be unaffected by these temporary declines.
The growth of alternative products
Two of the five top sales categories were part of the growing alternative trend. In each dairy and meat category evaluated there was growth, but the percent change in dollar sales for the alternative versions significantly outpaced the traditional products.
This trend started early in the pandemic. SPINS found that plant-based food saw a significantly higher growth rate than general food sales during the 16 weeks ending April 19.
Renner of Deloitte said consumers were looking at different types of products if the ones they were looking for were sold out. More consumers also focused on health and wellness products when purchasing, which led more people to try plant-based foods, she said.
Oat milk, for example, saw the biggest sales jump in this 31-week period, increasing 212% compared to the same time last year. That helped the beverage surge to the second most popular in plant-based dairy. And as meat plants became hot spots for coronavirus, more people gave plant-based protein a try as well. But will this be a lasting trend?
"During the pandemic, consumers were put in the position to think even more critically about their nutrition choices and where their food comes from. Concerns were further compounded due to food shortages and stories around COVID outbreaks at meat processing plants. Together, this created an environment for plant-based foods and alternative proteins to thrive," Peranick said. "Given the predisposition going into the year, coupled with the lingering effects of COVID related to health and wellness and food traceability, we can expect this trend to continue well beyond the days of COVID."