Fresh Food

What Pandemic-Weary Grocery Shoppers Want Right Now

Consumers don't care about departments, but meal-planning help, they'll take.
meal planning help
Photograph: Shutterstock

Grocery department managers plotting category mix and seasonal promotions should keep in mind one often-overlooked truth: Consumers don't care about departments.

So said Sally Lyons Wyatt, EVP and practice leader for industry analyst IRI, in a presentation from IRI and FMI–The Food Industry Association on leading fresh-food trends. After a year of preparing and eating most of their meals at home—and, for many shoppers, buying more of their groceries online—consumers are hungry for thoughtful meal-planning ideas and help from retailers in getting the meals they want to make on the table.

"It's not about the category; it's not about the department," Lyons Wyatt said. "It is all about the meal." 

U.S. consumers are making and eating 8 out of 10 meals at home right now, roughly double the share that they were pre-pandemic, according to IRI. And while many consumers are looking forward to enjoying more restaurant-prepared meals as COVID-19's grip on the country eases, the pandemic-spurred increase in cooking at home isn't expected to completely reverse. 

In a new report on post-pandemic dining expectations, Deloitte noted that 42% of consumers said they expect to cook more after the pandemic than they had before, while only 7% plan to cook less. About 3 in 10 (29%) plan to buy more fresh food. And even with expanded dining-out options as restaurant restrictions are lifted, more consumers get vaccinated and some workers return to actual offices, one-third of consumers, according to Deloitte, expect to dine out less than they did previously.

Turning those dining-at-home expectations into increased sales for fresh and prepared foods will depend in part on how easy retailers make it for consumers to find and buy the items they need for the meals they want to prepare, Lyons Wyatt and Jonna Parker, principal of IRI's Fresh Center of Excellence, suggested in the "Top Trends in Fresh" webinar. 

It's not just offering ready-in-40-minutes recipes in-stores or online, it's grouping all ingredients, as well as suggested sides, in a single display in-store. Online, it can mean letting shoppers click on listed ingredients to add them directly to their cart—and, as applicable especially with private-label products, offering suggested substitutions based on dietary needs and flavor preferences.

"How can you use fresh as an experience in your store?" Parker said. "How can we connect the aisles together?" The idea of the "cart-stopping experience" will be even more important for retailers post-pandemic, she said, with shorter, more-focused, get-in-and-get-out shopping trips having become the default for many shoppers in the COVID era. Meal-building anchors go into baskets, she said, and becoming a dependable, go-to source not just for easy, affordable main-dish options but also all of the other components needed to complete the meal can be a post-pandemic differentiator. 

Within the realm of e-commerce, Lyons Wyatt said, many grocery retailers are working to shore up their digital infrastructure to be able to better meet consumer demands. Some online grocery platforms let shoppers specify how ripe they want their produce or how they want their fresh meat cut; some also offer suggested substitutions in the case of out-of-stocks, she noted. Others don't. For consumers looking for help with dinner tonight or a baking project tomorrow, factors such as produce ripeness can make or break plans. So can the availability of non-fresh products consumers need to be able to execute on their plans.

"You have to think holistically," said Rick Stein, VP of fresh foods for FMI. A category manager responsible for the P&L sheet for produce is necessarily going to be focused on produce, but meals don't exist in department vacuums. The better, holistic approach, said Lyons Wyatt: "Help consumers own that meal again."

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