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Skittish Shoppers Taking to Stores to Stock ‘Pandemic Pantries’

Nielsen quantifies coronavirus impact at retail to date
Photograph: Shutterstock

Consumers around the globe are actively stockpiling emergency supplies as concerns grow that COVID-19, commonly known as the coronavirus, could become a worldwide pandemic, so says New York-based market researcher and data analytics provider Nielsen. Coronavirus concerns have even prompted organizers of Natural Products Expo West to postpone its trade show.  

Beyond emergency items and basic foodstuffs such as canned goods, flour, sugar and bottled water, shoppers’ concerns are also spilling over into an uptick in purchases of nonedible essentials, including supplements and first aid kits.

In a statement, Nielsen said its “initial investigation across major countries around the world has found significant spikes in the hoarding of emergency supplies is occurring in China, the U.S. and Italy, where consumers are rushing to build what are being labeled ‘pandemic pantries.’ We expect the rush to stock up to have an almost immediate impact on supply chains for manufacturers of the most sought-after goods.”

Reflected below are the category breakouts Nielsen shared from its Total U.S. All Outlets combined database, including convenience stores. Nielsen compared dollar and unit sales percentage growth for recent one-week and four-week periods to the same time periods the year prior and identified the following four broad trends.

1. Staying Clean

Not surprisingly, demand for medical and health-safety essentials is surging. In the U.S., the four weeks ending Feb. 22, 2020, saw 319% dollar growth and 378% unit growth for medical masks compared to the same month in 2019. Hand sanitizers are up 73% in sales during the same four weeks ending Feb. 22.

Dollar Growth vs. Year-Ago

Category1 Week4 Weeks
Hand sanitizer54%73%
Medical masks78%319%
Household maintenance masks179%262%
Thermometers34%47%
Aerosol Disinfectants19%32%

Regionally, the West Coast is leading medical mask growth, although health officials are now cautioning Americans against using them due to the limited role they are found to play in curtailing the outbreak. Nevertheless, drugstores in the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas had seen a 340% and 541% year-to-date dollar growth of face masks compared to this time in 2019, per Nielsen shopper data for the period ending Feb. 22.

Across mainstream U.S. outlets throughout the country for the same time frame, medical masks are up 239% in year-to-date sales.

2) Preparing for the Pandemic Pantry

By the week ended Feb. 22, the U.S. market had already seen spikes across many shelf-stable products and household essentials, including:

CategoryDollar GrowthUnit Growth
Bath and shower wipes9.5%12.5%
Water5.1%4.9%
Supplements7.8%9.7%
Fruit snack pieces23.6%10.3%
Oat milk306.0%280.5%
Pretzels9.0%5.5%
Dried beans10.1%2.5%

3) Passing on Produce?

The effects will be monitored in the coming weeks; fresh produce may take a hit, in which case it will affect $1.18 billion in average weekly sales across the produce department, as tallied by Nielsen in January 2020.

4) Thinking Beyond the Bug

Air quality is top of mind. In the U.S. market, air cleaners and purifiers are up 8.6% in the week ending Jan. 25, 2020, which leads annual year-over-year growth rate of 1.9% 

FMI Offers Coronavirus Resources

Meanwhile, FMI has released new materials for its members in order to assist the food industry’s preparedness planning for COVID-19 via a Coronavirus Preparedness Checklist and Coronavirus and Pandemic Preparedness for the Food Industry guide.

FMI has also compiled background information on a dedicated website to support planning and communications efforts and said that if a pandemic develops, it will necessitate engagement across a host of areas, including healthcare, store operations, supply chain, food safety, workforce, emergency management and media. 

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