Fresh Food

Dairy Strong Performer in Pandemic

Bakery, deli were a mixed bag
Photograph: Shutterstock

The week of April 12 was the sixth week of coronavirus-related grocery shopping patterns, which have been unlike any experienced in recent history. The initial panic buying has settled and during the week of April 12, many stores further sharpened safety measures. Dairy and total store bakery saw elevated demand, whereas deli sales remained mixed. 210 Analytics analyzed the IRI weekly sales findings, made possible by the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA).

Easter week ending April 12 showed continued elevated levels for total store, center store, frozen and fresh. The fresh perimeter saw a wide range of performances. Boosted by a dollar sales increase of 42.9% in meat, the total perimeter increased 17.6% over the week of April 12 vs. the comparable week in 2019. Dairy had an extremely strong week as well, but the performance of the bakery and deli areas remained mixed—much like seen in the past few weeks.

Sales Growth vs. Comparable Week in 2019

Source: IRI, total U.S., MULO, one week percent growth vs. year ago

“We expected this week to see an Easter sales bump of sorts,” said Jeremy Johnson, VP of education for IDDBA. “But Easter celebrations were hardly typical this year with the vast majority of Americans under shelter-in-place or other social distancing mandates. Without a doubt this impacted meal choices and group celebrations. There certainly was a bump in the sales numbers for dairy, but deli prepared, in particular, continued to see a lot of negative pressure Easter week. We noticed a number of retailers running holiday meal specials, but everyday prepared food sales are struggling. We will continue to track sales to help understand how trends develop.”


Dairy had two very strong weeks and sales remained elevated the first week of April, at 30.6% higher than the comparable week in 2019. “During these unusual times, scratch cooking, baking, comfort food and animal protein are back. Meat has been the top sales driver for the perimeter for weeks, and dairy is closely behind,” said Abrielle Backhaus, research coordinator for IDDBA. “Butter, eggs, cheese and milk remained sales powerhouses with dollar and volume sales continuing to sit well above the prior year levels. Social media platform Pinterest reports two interesting trends in this regard. First, baking bread is one of the fastest rising trends amid COVID-19. Pinterest reported a 4,400% surge in searches for ‘yeastless bread recipes,’ a 3,191% increase in searches for ‘bread in crockpot’ and a 1,499% jump in recipe searches for ‘sweet Amish bread.’ Second, food has always been huge on Pinterest, but as people cook more and encounter ingredients constraints, they’re looking for flexible, easy recipes. This is where brands and retailers can be a huge helping hand as well.”

On the Retail Feedback Group’s Constant Customer Feedback (CCF) program, many shoppers wrote in about limited supply in dairy, frustrations with purchases maximums and out-of-stocks. One wrote in, “Dairy was out of so many products that I wanted to purchase, what is happening?" Another commented on the CCF program, “I was looking for Kerry Gold butter. It was not in the specialty cheese case, as it is in other stores, nor was it in the butter area. Unsure if there are distribution problems.”

Consumer media’s reporting on milk dumping has shoppers confused between what they are finding in-store and what they hear in the news. “I keep hearing about dairy farmers suffering, how can there not be availability? I could only buy one carton of eggs, no more than 2 gallons of milk, three bread items, I don’t get it.”

Across many stores, egg availability remains low. One shopper commented, “The egg section was still wiped out. I was looking for regular large or extra large eggs but all that was left was free-range. I bought one dozen just to have something, but I will go to another store to see what I can find there, which is exactly what I don’t want to be doing right now.” Comments like these are a reminder that even during the pandemic, clear customer communications are important to build supply chain understanding.

Butter and eggs continued to have the highest sales growth during the second week of April vs. the comparable week in 2019, with natural cheese having the highest increase in absolute dollars. Natural cheese generated an additional $102 million in sales vs. the same week in 2019, followed by eggs that sold an additional $76 million and milk, with an additional $59 million.


During Easter week, the deli department experienced year-over-year sales increases for cheese, flat results for deli meat and continued deep declines for deli prepared. Service counters and self-serve areas continued to be closed across many retailers, or have shifted to an expanded meat/cheese grab-and-go assortment. For all three deli department areas, sales patterns started to shift significantly the week ending March 15. Deli cheese and meat sales jumped by double digits, and deli prepared very quickly started to flatten out and decline in subsequent weeks.

Deli Department Sales Growth vs. Year Ago

Source: IRI, total U.S., multioutlet, one week percent growth vs. year ago

Deli Meat

Random-weight deli meat sales flattened out Easter week in terms of dollar sales and actually saw a small decline in volume. “The decline in trips, consumers’ desire to move to the store quickly, and the closing of service counters for some stores is starting to wreak havoc on deli meat in recent weeks,” said Jonna Parker, team lead fresh for IRI. “But we are seeing an interesting development relative to those stores that are providing deli meat as a grab-and-go option. This had already started to gear up in the past two years but has really taken off amid COVID-19. While service counter sales made up 68% of deli meat sales this week, sales were down 16.6%. Sales for service counter deli meat that has been presliced for grab-and-go, but still sold non-UPC, was up 68.5%. This is a key takeaway for retailers who are not yet providing this service.”

Parker did point out that package size variety is key and shoppers agree. One shopper on the CCF system wrote, “It would be wonderful to have the presliced meats in smaller weights. I would like to buy a couple of different deli meats rather than 1 pound of one kind of meat.” This is a good reminder that household size, desire for variety and budgets may call for package size variety. Other shoppers are not in favor of presliced, “You closed your deli and now I have to sort through bags of meat and cheese that have been handled by many customers instead of one employee behind the counter.” In response, some retailers have ramped up their online meat/cheese deli ordering system to provide customization without the in-store interaction.

Meanwhile, refrigerated luncheon meats continued to outperform random-weight deli meat, with dollars up 17.1% and a double-digit increase for volume sales as well.

Deli Cheese

Random-weight deli cheese sales increased 8.2% over the week ending April 12, with slightly lower gains in volume.

“Just like seen in deli meat, packaged cheese increased significantly more, at 42.1%,” said Angela Bozo, education director for IDDBA. “But we’re also seeing the positive impact of preslicing deli cheese for grab-and-go availability. Whereas service counter sales were down 2%, cheese packaged for grab-and-go, but still non-UPC, was up 78.5%. It is important to keep in mind this is a smaller share of total random-weight deli cheese (32%), but it remains an important takeaway to help drive sales.” With the total sales of fixed-weight cheese being more than seven times bigger than random-weight deli cheese, the much higher increase signals significantly higher absolute dollar gains.

Deli Prepared

Sales remain a struggle for deli prepared—in part, because many stores have closed service counters and self-serve areas for a variety of reasons, including staffing, guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and shopper concern. Historically, deli prepared has also not been well-represented or easy to order online. As shoppers increasingly try to reduce the number of trips to the store, as well as make more meals at home, sales of deli prepared were down 47.1%. Sales were off for virtually all offerings and meal occasions, whether breakfast items, combo meals, trays or deli pizza.

“Holiday meals were the one bright spot, up 1,781% due in part by Easter falling two weeks earlier this year,” said Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator for IDDBA. “Retailers got creative in Easter meal offers, but unfortunately, that is a very small segment of total sales, which drives the high percentage. However, the idea behind it, providing a complete meal solution to give consumers a break on meal preparation, is a good one. Reminding shoppers of rotisserie chicken availability across communication platforms may help create demand. We’re even seeing some retailers selling these types of items in a drive-thru format to limit in-store trips."


Patterns seen in the past few weeks held up Easter week as well. Packaged baked goods easily outperformed the in-store bakery, with the latter continuing to be down about 20%. Some retailers have limited staff, reduced service counter offerings, reduced hours or closed the in-store bakery altogether. Packaged cookies and crackers continue to sit comfortably above last year’s sales right around 10% for the past three weeks.

Bakery Department Sales Growth vs. Comparable Week 2019

Source: IRI, total U.S., multioutlet, one week percent growth vs. year ago

Bakery Commercial Aisle

Sales continues to be mixed regarding the more functional packaged bakery vs. ones more indulgent in nature. Fresh bread, rolls, bagels and English muffins continued to see significant double-digit increases during the week of April 12, whereas bakery snacks, muffins, pastries and cakes were off or flat vs. the same week in 2019.

Cookies and Crackers

Other baked goods, including packaged cookies and crackers in UPC/fixed-weight packages, continued to track well ahead of 2019, but did not see a big bump for Easter. Following the stock up weeks in mid-March, both cookies and crackers tracked about 10% ahead of the comparable week last year. Sales may be affected by America’s baking craze, with baking aisle sales continuing to be highly elevated, up 67.9% over the comparable week in 2019.

In-Store Bakery

As many retailers have closed or reduced their in-store bakery offering, sales for the in-store bakery (non-UPC, random-weight items, no UPC items) were off by more than 20% vs. those during the same week last year. Very similar to patterns in the packaged baked goods aisle, functional items did better than indulgent items. Much like deli meat and cheese, the in-store bakery has an opportunity to provide grab-and-go items for shoppers in a hurry, especially in smaller package sizes. A shopper on the CCF system wrote, “Although it's disappointing not to have individual doughnuts, bagels, etc., it's nice to have a good selection of packaged bakery products.”

But package size is a consideration in bakery goods as well. It is important to keep in mind that celebrations are down, whether Easter, graduations or birthday parties. This means a shift to smaller pack sizes for everyday consumption may be desirable. A shopper on CCF commented, “With the coronavirus, I understand why the bakery does not have individual doughnuts on the trays to choose from, but I would like it if you could package some of your more popular doughnuts, like glazed, angel creme, Bavarian, cake, etc., in two-packs because I do not want to buy six or more in a pack.”

Lessons From Overseas

European sales patterns can help shed some light on what may lie ahead. After very similar weeks of stockpiling as seen in the U.S., most countries seem to have shifted to continued elevated purchasing levels for total edibles, with mixed engagement with fresh. For food, the everyday baseline for the week ending April 5 trended between 10% and 20% above the comparable week in 2019 for all countries except France. Nonedible sales have mostly leveled off and declined for some. Frozen food continues to see above-average gains in all countries, but Spain.

What’s next?

The third week of April still saw great uncertainty about the “reopening” of the country. While states were encouraged to begin lifting their executive orders in a phased approach under strict criteria when it is safe to do so, many states extended their stay-at-home orders. However, IRI’s weekly survey of primary grocery shoppers revealed that more than 80% of households plan to still avoid restaurants for at least several weeks or more even after restrictions are lifted. The need for food, especially fresh food for meals and snacks, will be continuing.

The top question on everyone’s mind is how far the new baseline lies above the old normal. Reality is that it is too early to tell. There has not been a good indicator week yet of what will be the “new normal.” Mid-March had the enormous panic purchasing surge, followed by subsequent social distancing and shelter-in-place surges. Next were the two weeks leading up to Easter. In the upcoming two weeks, sales will go up against Easter 2019, which fell on April 21, which yet again complicates any sense of normalcy and data predictions.

210 Analytics, IRI and IDDBA will provide sales updates every week. Meanwhile, please thank the grocery industry, from farm to store, for all they do to ensure supply during these unprecedented times.

Anne-Marie Roerink is principal of 210 Analytics, which specializes in research for the food retailing industry and authors studies in meat, produce, bakery, deli, frozen, confectionery, snacks and retail operations. She can be reached at


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