Fresh Food

Fresh Food Sales Stayed Strong During 1st Week of April

Total perimeter store sales increased 15.8% through April 5 vs. same week in 2019
Photograph: Shutterstock

The first week of April marked the end of what has been, for most people, the fourth week of tightening social distancing measures caused by the rapid spread of the coronavirus. Since early March, grocery stores have experienced unprecedented demand, along with shifting buying patterns. Dairy and bakery are seeing elevated demand, whereas deli sales are mixed. 210 Analytics analyzed IRI's weekly findings, made possible by the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA).

During the week of April 5, food sales continued to show highly elevated levels, with center store food dollars up 29.4% over the comparable week in 2019. Boosted by an increase of 41.2% in meat, the total perimeter increased 15.8% over the week of April 5 vs. the comparable week in 2019. The panic buying in paper goods and other nonedibles appears to have slowed down significantly, resulting in total store sales increasing 16.9% over the same week in 2019.

Sales Growth vs. Comparable Week in 2019

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

Virtually all departments had slightly higher sales increases than seen in the week prior. “Sales were likely influenced by the earlier Easter and a higher everyday demand that is driving a new baseline that sits well above the old normal," said Jeremy Johnson, VP of education for Madison, Wis.-based IDDBA. “At the same time, sales results must be seen against the backdrop of many stores having shortened opening hours, closed service departments, metered entry of shoppers, purchase limitations on popular items and continued out-of-stocks for others. These measures are affecting deli prepared sales in particular. The question is: How which of the short-term behaviors during the pandemic will become more permanent?”


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. “Dairy overall is continuing to post very strong sales increases compared to 2019, but a few particular powerhouses amid the COVID-19 buying are eggs, cheese, milk and butter,” said Abrielle Backhaus, research coordinator for IDDBA. “In addition to the obvious increase in at-home meal occasions, America has taken to baking in recent weeks, driving high demand for baking mixes and other ingredients. We’re seeing retailers playing into this with ‘entertain the kids’ cookie decorating kits and baking supply cross-merchandising stations, where supply permits. Eggs continue to be an item where demand often exceeds supply.”

Shoppers expressed both understanding and some frustration with the shortages of dairy items in their stores, according to comments left on the Retail Feedback Group’s Constant Customer Feedback (CCF) program. “There is a limit on eggs, butter and milk. The cases are full! Limits should be raised or eliminated. Dairy farmers are not being able to sell because of your limits! Hoarding is over since products are available everywhere. I was unable to buy these items in the amount I needed to feed my family!”

Comments like these are a reminder that even during the pandemic, clear customer communications are important to build supply chain understanding.

Deli: Continued Mixed Results

During the first week of April, the deli department experienced year-over-year sales increases for cheese and meat, but deep declines for deli prepared as many stores had closed or limited operations of made-to-order counters, self-serve buffets, salad bars and hot bars. For all three deli department areas, sales patterns started to shift significantly in the week ending March 15, when deli cheese and meat jumped up with double-digits, whereas deli prepared very quickly started to flatten out and decline in subsequent weeks.

Deli Meat

Sales of random-weight deli meat increased 6.2% the week of April 5, with volume sales up 1.5%. Sales of deli meat peaked three weeks prior, at 40.5%.

It appears disproportionately more of the deli meat dollar is going to prepackaged meat amid COVID-19 sales. Both volume and dollars for prepackaged deli meat were up significantly more than that of random-weight deli meat.

Over the past few weeks, many retailers have closed cut-to-order counters and instead are providing prepackaged inventory for easy grab-and-go. Shoppers commented on the importance of finding a way to provide both package size variety and the ability to customize even with the cut-to-order stations closed. One shopper on the CCF system said, “I like my cold cuts sliced thin and since there is no opportunity to receive personal service, I was forced to purchase precut deli meat, but it was a bit too thick for my liking.”

Some retailers have ramped up their online meat/cheese deli ordering system to provide customization without the in-store interaction. Another commented, “Lunch meats and cheeses were precut and already packaged. This was great, so much better than prepackaged. But both the presliced cheese and lunch meat are close to a pound each. Is it possible to have some smaller packs, maybe a quarter pound or half-pound? Thank you.”

This is a good reminder that household size and budgets may call for package size variety.

Deli Cheese

Sales of random-weight deli cheese increased 6.2% over the week ending April 5, with slightly higher gains in volume.

“Just like seen in deli meat, packaged cheese in the refrigerated aisle increased significantly more, at 40.9%,” said Angela Bozo, IDDBA’s education director. “With the total sales of prepackaged cheese being more than seven times bigger than random-weight deli cheese, the much higher increase signals significantly higher absolute dollar gains. Just like seen in other areas of the store, packaged cheese is in demand, likely driven by higher everyday demand, click-and-collect orders, speeding up the shopping trip and sheer availability.”

Cheese was another area with continued out-of-stocks during the first week of April. Shoppers commented on substituting based on availability. One shopper on CCF said, “Blocks of cheese in the dairy case were mostly sold out. Settled for presliced cheese squares.”

Deli Prepared

As even more grocery retailers closed deli-prepared options, the total category decreased a little more than 37% vs. the same week last year. Sales were off for virtually all offerings and meal occasions, whether breakfast items, combo meals, trays or deli pizza.

“As the first waves of panic buying are over, measures to curb the number of people going in grocery stores combined with a slowdown in trip frequency is really hurting the deli-prepared area,” said Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator for IDDBA. “The only area that experienced growth were holiday meals with some retailers offering heat-and-eat Easter meal solutions. Creating demand by including deli-prepared options, such as rotisserie chicken, prominently on the website as an easy dinner option may help recover some of the lost sales in weeks to come. It is important to remember that consumers are spending more time preparing the evening meal as well as supporting actions to save restaurants, such as the Great American Takeout.”


Bakery saw more dollars shift from the in-store bakery to the bakery aisle. Total bakery increased 9.3% in sales during the week of April 5 vs. the comparable week in 2019, boosted by an increase in sales in the bakery and cookie and cracker aisles. Some retailers have limited service counter offerings, hours or even having closed the in-store bakery altogether.

Sales Growth Deli Department vs. Comparable Week in 2019

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

Commercial Bakery Aisle

Sales continues to be mixed when regarding the more functional bakery aisle items vs. ones more indulgent in nature. Fresh bread, rolls, bagels and English muffins continue to see significant double-digit increases during the week of April 5, whereas bakery snacks, as well as things such as pies and cakes were off vs. the same week in 2019.

Other baked goods, including cookies and crackers found in the center store aisles, saw big increases as well, likely driven by the combination of pantry stocking and increased everyday needs. Sales of crackers started to gear up at the onset of the coronavirus-related measures, at 9.1% over the week ending March 8. Sales continued to be highly elevated the week ending April 5, at 12.8%.

Packaged cookies went from seeing some sales pressure early in March to a 15.1% increase for the week ending April 5 vs. 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 were off by more than 20% vs. those during the same week last year. Cakes, doughnuts and cookies saw significant declines, whereas the second-largest seller, breads, did increase substantially, as did other functional items.

“Impulse is a big driver of sales for the more indulgent bakery items,” said Jonna Parker, fresh team lead for IRI. “Much like trying to actively generate demand for deli-prepared items, reminding shoppers of buying some dessert or baked goods reward can be a good way to keep the bakery top of mind during these times.”

Indeed, some shoppers are looking for a little indulgence and finding it, regardless of whether the service bakery was open. One shopper commented on CCF, “I knew the bakery was closed but there were cupcakes, cookies, angel food cakes (which I bought), lots of berries on sale to top the cake too set out on tables in front of the bakery. Very pleased!”

This is a good reminder that similar to prepackaged deli meat and cheeses, prepackaged baked goods may be a way to offset closed service operations. Some retailers are providing baking recipes on their social media feed and encouraging easy baking activities for kids.

Top Six Items in Sales

Source: IRI, total U.S., multioutlet, week ending March 29, 2020

Lessons From Overseas

Consumers in most European countries were affected weeks before the coronavirus upended sales patterns in the U.S. Most countries are shifting to a moderately elevated purchasing level post stockpiling. For food, the everyday baseline has been trending between 10%-20% above the comparable week in 2019 for Italy, Greece and the Netherlands, and between 5%-10% for France and Germany. Nonedible sales have mostly leveled off and declined for some. Frozen food continues to see above-average gains in these countries. Edible and dairy sales remained highly elevated for most these countries.

Source: IRI, total U.S., multioutlet, week ending March 29, 2020

Meanwhile, please thank the grocery industry, from farm to store, for all they do to ensure supply during these unprecedented times. #SupermarketSuperHeroes

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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