Inflation at the grocery store (3.0% year-over-year) lagged inflation in the overall economy (3.7%) in August, and a few grocery food groups—among them dairy and fresh produce—saw prices slide a little during the month, the BLS noted in its August Consumer Price Index (CPI) report.
Continued moderation in pricing at the supermarket through the end of summer 2023 is modestly cooling consumers’ concerns about food prices, though to what extent depends on whom you ask: FMI – The Food Industry Association reported that 70% of consumers surveyed this summer said they were concerned about rising grocery prices, down from 75% in February. Meanwhile, the August survey of U.S. primary grocery shoppers from Circana, 210 Analytics and the International Fresh Produce Association found 94% of respondents reporting concern about food and beverage costs amid recent spikes in gas prices.
Still, even that 94% is a bit better than year-ago levels, and for the first time in several months in August, the share of consumers surveyed by Circana who said that grocery prices are higher than they were a year ago fell below 90%. In the fresh department, this slightly-more-positive consumer outlook is translating into improved volume sales: August marked the third time since March that consumers bought more fresh produce than they did a year ago.
Retailers took price cuts on fresh fruit in August—the average price per pound was down 2.1% YoY, according to Circana—and shoppers ate it up, 210 Analytics President Anne-Marie Roerink says. “Consumers are paying attention,” Roerink says. “Volumes trend up as prices go down.”
Roerink notes a similar trend has played out farther back in the store, in the seafood department: Following a price surge in 2022, the price of crab has come down by double-digits this year, and that notable decline spurred volume sales enough to counteract deflation, she says.
Consumers are saving where they can, and the balancing act for their food spend cuts across both supermarkets and restaurants, Roerink says. Circana team lead for fresh Jonna Parker noted that the share of meals that consumers prepared at home in August dipped to a multiyear low of around 77%.
How U.S. consumers are engaging with restaurants continues to evolve, though, Roerink points out. Restaurant purchases are more piecemeal and more deliberate, she says, owing to consumers’ continued price-consciousness. Compared with pre-pandemic times, there is less “let’s go out for dinner as a family tonight because we ran out of time/don’t have the right ingredients at home,” says Roerink.
Rather, restaurant visits now “are more planned,” she says, and when consumers do eat out (or take out), “they’re more discerning in what they order,” focusing on craveable center-plate items they can’t readily create at home or smaller, snack-y splurges. This creates opportunity for retailers, Roerink says: Consumers might opt for a carryout pizza or takeout pad Thai, but they’re rounding out the meal with salads, sides and beverages from home to save money.
“There is still so much takeout and delivery happening—retail adds to that, and I think that is a big opportunity for retail to lean into” in 2024, she says.
A parent schlepping kids to soccer practice on a weeknight might hit a drive-thru for a cheeseburger and chicken nuggets, but then “you’re all sharing the same cut fruit or salad” brought from home, Roerink offers.
It’s absolutely worthwhile for retailers to help consumers “make the meal” in ways like this, pointing them to fresh and fresh-prepared items that can help them balance a splurge here or there with a value-oriented complement.
This holds true even when consumers are doing all of their meal prep at home, she adds. “Life is full of competing choices, and there is no linear consumer,” says Roerink. In the same basket you’ll see the 8-hour brisket and the microwave side, she says. Or the organic produce and ready-to-eat protein for a hearty dinner salad and a $1 doughnut for breakfast.
“It’s really about those affordable little moments of joy that we all need in our lives,” Roerink says. And with consumers finding those moments a little more accessible as inflation cools, savvy retailers that meet shoppers’ dueling demands for indulgence and frugality in the same basket will be poised to win in 2024.