Fresh Food

Everyday Demand Drives Dairy Sales

Dairy, deli and bakery sales remain higher due to pandemic shopping
Photograph: Shutterstock

The second week of August brought continued high levels of consumer concern over the coronavirus as well as several extreme weather events impacting sales in both the Northeast and Midwest as many households remained without power. Food retail sales continued to track well ahead of the 2019 levels for total store, fresh and center store. In all, everyday demand stayed up slightly from prior week levels when regarding absolute dollar and volume sales but due to the higher 2019 baseline, year-over-year gains were mostly unchanged.

However, financial pressure is mounting, which tends to have big impacts on grocery shopping, including channel choice, the type of items and quantity bought, the importance of price and promotions and more. High levels of unemployment are being compounded by the delay over the extension of unemployment benefits and uncertainty over a second round of stimulus payments.

“IRI primary shopper research released Aug. 11 found that if Americans were to receive a second stimulus check from the U.S. government, they believe they would spend it on more meat (21%), more produce (20%) and 7% would purchase restaurant meals more often,” said Jonna Parker, team lead of fresh for IRI. “We also asked how the loss of a weekly unemployment benefit of $600 might affect shopping behavior. Top answers among current beneficiaries included buying fewer premium products at 24%, switching more purchases to store brands versus national brands at 19%, and buying fewer convenient meals to instead cook from scratch at 18%. It is clear that continued financial pressure will express itself in different deli, dairy and bakery purchases in the next few weeks and months compared to typical years.”

210 Analytics analyzed the IRI weekly sales findings, made possible by the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA) to help understand how dairy, deli and bakery sales are developing throughout the pandemic. The net effect of the positive and negative trends was a total store sales increase of 8.6% vs. a year ago during the week ending Aug. 9—virtually unchanged from the week prior. Food sales were stronger than nonfood sales, with a gain of 11.6% for center-store edibles (including frozen) and an increase of 8.9% for the fresh perimeter. Results for random-weight deli and fresh, non-UPC bakery remained down.

Dollar Sales Growth vs. Comparable Week in 2019

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

“At this point in time, we have continued coronavirus concern and economic pressure weighing on food spending,” said Jeremy Johnson, VP of education for IDDBA. “At the same time, back-to-school season keeps gearing up but very differently than in prior years with many students continuing with virtual education only. This will impact growth trends going forward, positively or negatively depending on the category and item. Helping consumers with meal planning and underscoring the value and healthfulness of home-prepared meals will help ensure we optimize the deli, dairy and bakery dollar.”

Dairy: A Sales Powerhouse

“Dairy sales increased $20 million over the prior week, but because of going up against a higher 2019 baseline, year-over-year gains were slightly lower,” said Abrielle Backhaus, research coordinator for IDDBA. “As such, the 11.9% dollar growth vs. a year ago for the week ending Aug. 9 was the lowest gain since the onset of the pandemic. This is despite dairy sales having managed 22 weeks of consecutive double-digit increases, which is just incredible.”

Natural cheese generated weekly sales of $300 million, which was actually up from $293 million the week prior. Milk, yogurt and egg sales also totaled more than $100 million for the week; however, gains for milk and yogurt remained in the single digits. The highest percentage gain this week was recorded by whipped toppings, at 23.1%, albeit off a small base. “Eight categories still had in double-digit year-over-year growth the second week of August,” said Backhaus. “Cheese, natural and processed, pre-packaged and deli continued to support the many more at-home meal occasions along with eggs, butter and other dairy basics.”

Growth percentages differ whether looking at dollars, units or volume. “With the exception of butter and whipped toppings, dollar gains trended ahead of volume gains for the week ending Aug. 9 versus a year ago,” Parker said. “This tends to point to inflation. But at the same time, we are seeing some interesting developments when comparing unit and volume gains. Take yogurt, for instance. Shoppers are buying fewer units, but the same volume in comparison to last year, which indicates they have shifted to larger packages. Likely, with more at-home vs. on-the-go meal occasions, shoppers are purchasing fewer single-serve yogurts and instead purchasing yogurt in larger containers. This is where we will have to keep a close eye on the back-to-school patterns in the coming weeks and adjust accordingly for subsequent months.”

Parker added, “The double-digit increases in cream/creamers and whipped toppings go hand-in-hand with the continued pandemic routines, including baking and making your own morning cup of coffee. At the onset of the pandemic, Amazon reported big increases in the sales of coffee makers and we have seen the sales of creamers highly elevated ever since.”

SKUs have been reduced some for dairy, but nothing like areas such as frozen foods or fresh meat. Overall, the number of dairy items per store selling was off by 2.9% during the week of Aug. 9 vs. the same week in 2019. However, there are a few areas that continue to see a much narrower assortment, margarine in particular at -16.4%.

Continued Mixed Results for Deli

The multi-week recovery for the deli department seems to be stalling out in recent weeks. Sales for deli cheese and meat remained well above last year’s levels but deli prepared sales pulled down the average for the total deli department. Deli prepared sales for the week ending Aug. 9 were down 20.9% vs. the same week a year ago—not quite able to recover the last bit of ground lost during the pandemic as self-serve olive, cold and hot food bars were shut down.

“Deli meat and deli cheese seem to have settled into to a nice pattern of about 10% above last year’s levels and continue to trade off for the honor of the strongest growth within total deli,” said Angela Bozo, education director for IDDBA. “Success in the deli department is highly dependent on store trips so in the environment where people are shopping less and ordering online, making sure deli cheese, meat and prepared foods are on the radar is crucially important.”

Deli Meat

Sales for random-weight, non-UPC deli meat increased 9.3% vs. the same week a year ago. Sales gains were more than five times higher than those of pre-packaged lunch meat from the refrigerated area that grew 1.9%. Price inflation drove higher dollar than volume gains for both; however, packaged lunchmeat saw a decrease in volume, at -5.9%.

In dollar sales, non-UPC random weight is the bigger category at $133 million in weekly sales vs. $124 million for packaged lunch meat. However, in volume, UPC lunch meat is much bigger at 24 million per week vs. 16 million in non-UPC sliced to order.

Deli Cheese

Random-weight deli cheese dollar gains moved back to double-digits the second full week of August, at 10% versus the same week a year ago. Fixed-weight cheese, despite being more than six times the size, had higher gains once more, at 16%. Sales reached $360 million for the week of Aug. 9 in fixed-weight cheese.  

Volume gains for fixed-weight cheese remained in double digits, at 10.2% vs. a year ago.


Assortment in deli-prepared items is crawling back a little at a time as retailers move to packaged foods and employee-assisted buffet cases. At its lowest point, the average number of items per store selling stood at 77 from its normal assortment of about 100 items. This week, assortment was 13 items below normal levels as retailers are bringing items in pre-packaged format. “Many retailers are still in wait-and-see mode as it relates to bringing deli-prepared options back online,” said Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator for IDDBA. “Between local health department guidelines and shopper concern, most retailers are still selling pre-packaged items only. While pre-packaged has done a tremendous job in bringing sales back, it does not quite offset the old volume at least in part due to the smaller assortment.”

These are the areas where assortment narrowed most during the week of Aug. 9 vs. a year ago, many of them lunch, special occasion or in-store consumption items:

  • Combo meals: -32.0%
  • Trays: -23.3%
  • Salads: -22.0%
  • Prepared/cooked meat: -12.5%
  • Sandwiches: -11.8%
  • Soups: -14.2%

After a few very strong weeks, sales gains for refrigerated, fixed-weight meals dropped back to 10.6%. This is still far above any of the areas within deli-prepared as consumers are looking to mix and match scratch items with some convenience-focused items. Recovery of random-weight deli-prepared items is stalling a bit, around -21% below last year’s levels.

A closer look at refrigerated, fixed-weight meals shows strength across all offerings, with the exception of lunch items, that includes pre-packaged meat/cheese/cracker kits. Pasta and side dishes have the highest year-over-year growth, at 31.1% and 18.3%, respectively.


The second week of August brought more mixed results for baked goods. The in-store bakery gains seem to be plateauing around 5% below last year’s levels, whereas the packaged baked goods all brought in stable year-over-year gains of 9%.  Sales of packaged cookies and crackers still trended in positive territory, but are starting to be close to prior year levels.

Packaged Baked Goods Aisle

Total packaged baked goods increased 8.6% for weekly sales of $482 million, which was up from $476 million the week prior. Because the 2019 baseline for the week ending Aug. 9 was higher, the year-over-year increases were a bit lower. Most areas within bakery remained stable compared with the gains generated the week prior.

Cookies and Crackers

Aisle cookies and crackers in UPC/fixed-weight packages had their lowest gain since the onset of the pandemic, at 3.4% in dollar sales vs. the same week a year ago. “The lack of larger gatherings and offices that might have normally gravitated toward boxes and packages of multiserve cookies and crackers is having an effect, as is consumers increasingly talking about shedding the ‘quarantine 15,’ ” said Parker. Total weekly sales were $305 million.

In-Store Bakery

While still not caught up with 2019 sales levels, the in-store bakery did have five items tracking in the plus the week of Aug. 9 vs. 2019. Cakes, cookies, breakfast items, bread and croissants all had slight or moderate gains over the same week a year ago. That pushed total random-weight baked goods sales to just 5.2% below its year-ago levels.

Doughnuts and rolls, often merchandised as a bulk item in the fresh bakery, continued to be down in double digits.

What’s Next?

Deli, dairy and bakery sales for the third week of August will likely continued to be affected by high consumer concern over the coronavirus. Everyday spending on groceries, including necessities and indulgent items, will increasingly depend on shoppers’ individual financial situation as economic pressure and uncertainty is mounting. Back-to-school season is in full swing, though it looks very differently from prior years in most states. This will continue to impact year-over-year trend lines, particularly for foods affected by breakfast and lunch occasions with many more children at home while participating in virtual education. Retail sales are likely to remain elevated for weeks to come.

 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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