The last year in grocery was memorable to say the least, but when it comes to cheese, 2020 was the year of making cheddar. The pandemic drove meal consumption back in the home and sparked cravings for comfort foods, in which cheese often played an important role.
“Cheese was big in 2020,” says Jonna Parker, principal with IRI’s Fresh Center of Excellence, which finds total dairy and deli cheese sales reached almost $22.5 billion, up 19.4%, for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 24, 2021. “In 2020, we were making on average 84% of our meals at home. Before the pandemic, we were making 43% of our meals in home,” continues Parker. “There was literally a sea change in food consumption.”
Meals at home ushered in a multitude of uses for cheese, from an ingredient in comforting casseroles and pasta dishes to a protein-packed snack to entertainment in the form of post-worthy charcuterie boards. IRI even saw a surge in cheese sales related to increased salad consumption, as health-conscious eaters looked to elevate their plates of greens.
“Cheese rode the wave across the store,” says Parker, who further notes strong performances from a wide variety of cheese types. No single cheese was a runaway success. “The total category was in demand,” she adds.
Josh Zodikoff, senior category manager for foodservice for The Save Mart Cos., agrees. “In our Lucky, Lucky California and Save Mart stores, we’ve noticed that cheese has been an across-the-board category success,” he says. “It’s great to see our customers, of all ages, discovering and enjoying this category, especially the fresh cheeses, including brie, blues, feta and goat cheeses.”
At Gelson’s Markets, a shift “back to the basics and everyday comfort foods” is also fueling cheese purchases, says Specialty Cheese Category Manager Gayle De Caro. “Early in the pandemic customers were in survival mode—buying paper goods and grocery staples. They wanted longevity in products, and cheese was one of those staples,” she says. And as consumers prepared and consumed the majority of their meals at home, they increasingly reached for cheese in the kitchen. “Ingredient cheese such as cheddars and mozzarella were experiencing double-digit growth,” adds De Caro.
Another major trend in 2020 cheese purchases was the “huge jump” in dairy cheese, says Parker. While the deli has long benefited from a freshness and quality halo surrounding sliced-to-order meats and cheeses (and been able to charge handsomely for it), the pandemic-inspired move to online shopping and less frequent trips to the grocery store drove sales of dairy aisle shingle-packs, shreds and more. Total dairy cheese sales reached nearly $14.7 billion for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 24, 2021, an increase of 20.2%, reports Chicago-based IRI.
And while many deli and prepared foods operations experienced a reduction in foot traffic, deli cheese sales still managed to top $7.8 billion, up 18.1% over the previous year, reports IRI, with grab-and-go as the unsurprising star of the department at a time when shoppers are seeking contactless convenience and an expedited shopping experience. Grab-and-go cheese soared to over $1.1 billion in sales, up a staggering 31.4% over the previous year.
“The growth in grab-and-go was twofold—where stores had to cut back on deli staff, grab-and-go expanded, and as people weren’t spending a lot of time in-store, the category offered convenience over standing in line at the deli,” says Parker.
Total U.S. multioutlet (grocery, drug, mass market, military and select club and dollar retailers) | YA is the year ago for the same weeks ending 2020; 2 YA is the same weeks ending 2019; 3 YA is the same weeks ending 2018 | IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm