Driven by stay-at-home orders, restricted dining and remote school and work, the shopping habits of U.S. customers shifted dramatically in the past year as the world navigated—and continues to navigate—the COVID-19 pandemic. These shifts sparked new trends in the grocery landscape, such as at-home cooking, and accelerated others that had been emerging: e-commerce and a focus on health and wellness.
FMI–The Food Industry Association, which has tracked grocery shopping habits of U.S. customers for the past four decades—identified these trends in its 2021 U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends report, prepared in partnership with The Hartman Group, and explores how the future of food retail will be affected by the pandemic.
“Throughout this past year, American grocery consumers have developed a deeper relationship with their kitchens, increased their healthy eating consciousness, and have learned new ways to shop,” FMI President and CEO Leslie Sarasin said in a release. “We see shoppers engaging in more stock-up trips to support their at-home cooking, exercising new online shopping skills, and letting their personal concept of being well impact their food and shopping behaviors. Looking ahead, we expect many of these trends to continue.”
The Era of At-Home Meals
FMI’s survey of 2,056 U.S. adults, conducted Feb. 16-24, found that 58% of shoppers report eating more at home today, and nearly half (49%) report cooking or preparing their own meals more than before the pandemic.
And although the factors that drove much of this trend have begun to ease—with in-person schooling resuming, offices reopening and indoor dining returning as more people get vaccinated and COVID cases ebb—41% of shoppers indicated that they expect they will prepare meals at home more than before post-pandemic. FMI said in its report that shoppers enhanced flexibility to work from home supports this, as well as improved cooking skills obtained through cooking more during the pandemic.
Habit Changes Anticipated After the Pandemic (Among All Shoppers)
|Habit||Less Than Before||Same||More Than Before|
|Prepare meals at home||12%||46%||41%|
|Eat meals with others||20%||42%||39%|
|Eat out at restaurants||28%||34%||38%|
|Order in from restaurants||20%||48%||32%|
|Make in-person visits for food or groceries||21%||49%||31%|
|Order groceries online for delivery||22%||50%||28%|
|Order food or groceries online for pickup||22%||52%||27%|
|Let food in my fridge or pantry go to waste||34%||48%||18%|
“Ultimately, however, it will be important for retailers to remember, despite what appears to be a deepening appreciation for cooking and expanded skills for planning, consumers’ needs for efficient and sustainable ways to prepare food have not diminished,” the association said in the report. “Pandemic cooking fatigue is real, and home cooks continue to seek ways to save time and labor without sacrificing health and taste.”
E-Commerce and Grocery Shopping
Consumers seeking safer methods of shopping for groceries amid the pandemic helped drive adoption of services such as online ordering, pickup and delivery. In 2020, 52% of shoppers surveyed indicated they had bought groceries online, but in 2021, that percent grew to 64%, with newcomers from every generation, FMI noted.
While the profile of the online shopper skews younger, urban, with kids and higher incomes, FMI said the age group identified as most vulnerable to COVID-19 (those 76 years and older) were especially likely to enter online shopping for the first time, almost doubling their participation.
The surge in newcomers has been accompanied by an increase in frequency of online grocery shopping, with more than one-fourth (29%) of consumers placing a weekly order, representing almost one-fifth of all adults, FMI said.
“Every order/service model that avoided in-store visits saw gains in usage over the prior year,” the association said in the report. “Many shoppers used a mix of shipping and pickup, signaling a preference for flexible options. Subscription services enable many shoppers (33%) to go one step further, avoiding ongoing decision-making and ensuring a baseline set of staples or discoveries; higher-income households were especially likely to leverage these options.”
Online Services Used
|Service||Percent Among Online Shoppers|
|Ordered directly with the store||45%|
The Concept of Being Well Evolves
For years, shoppers have expressed a desire to eat better and live healthier lives. In prior U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends reports, FMI has pointed to the importance of cooking well as the primary path for achieving these goals and highlighting the roles stores can play in supplying the products and inspiration shoppers need on their health and wellness journeys—and 2021 is no different.
“A deeper exploration of what ‘shopping well’ entails for consumers in early 2021 has surfaced themes similar to our examination of cooking well and eating well in prior years—namely, that health, convenience and pleasure are key drivers for shopping choices and behaviors,” FMI said.
Although most feel they still have work to do (38% said their eating could be somewhat healthier and 20% said it could be a lot healthier), compared to last year, there has been a 14-point increase (41%) in consumers who believe their eating is "healthy enough" or "as healthy as possible," the report found.
“Moving forward, retailers would do well to be mindful that many households maybe just beginning or looking to chart different healthy eating journeys, with implications for how they evaluate and shop for food as well as how they evaluate the retailers where they shop for it,” FMI said.