Consumer Worry Shifts From Food Safety to Food Prices

Walmart, Aldi, Kroger top-ranked for value
Photograph: Shutterstock

Seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. consumers are shifting their worry from food safety to food prices, with nearly half of all shoppers reporting their personal finances are poor and 91% now watching grocery store prices closely, according to a recent study of the COVID-19 pandemic conducted by data science firm dunnhumby.

The dunnhumby Consumer Pulse Survey—the fifth phase since the firm began tracking consumer attitudes related to the global pandemic in late March—found 49% of U.S. consumers surveyed reported that their personal finances were poor, an increase of nearly 20% since July. In addition, 68% reported that the economy wasn’t good either, and 91% said they are closely watching store prices. The “dunnhumby Worry Index,” a measure of how concerned consumers are about COVID-19, is now down to 24% in the U.S., a drop of 5% compared to July. 

“Since the pandemic first hit, we have been analyzing and studying consumer reactions to the virus, how it impacted their shopping behavior, and how they in turn reacted to retailers’ actions to combat the virus. Seven months after shutdowns, we are now seeing a major pivot with consumer focus turning away from the virus itself to now being more concerned with increasing food prices while the economy and their personal finances are deteriorating,” said Jose Gomes, president of North America for dunnhumby, which has U.S. headquarters in Chicago. “Retailers need to take note that most shoppers right now are on the hunt for more value by shopping at stores with regularly low prices, while also seeking discounts and promotions.”

While worry about the virus is decreasing in the U.S. and globally (22%), just 50% of consumers in the U.S. and 48% globally believe stores are doing a good job regarding the virus. Similarly, discontent with government actions continues to grow with 77% of Americans surveyed disapprove of the government’s actions during the pandemic, compared to 67% of consumers globally.

Survey respondents’ concerns with higher food prices align with the latest Consumer Price Index for Food, which reported that August food prices were 4.1% higher than in 2019. In addition, food-at-home prices have increased 3.3% and food-away-from-home prices have increased 2.6% in the same timeframe.

dunnhumby survey
Source: Dunnhumby

Key findings from the study:

  • Consumer shopping behaviors are again shifting as consumer worry decreases. The number of weekly shopping trips is increasing with an average of 5.4 in Wave 5, compared to 3.8 in March. Fifty percent of respondents continue to shop fewer stores, 25% continue to spend more each trip and 41% are getting carryout. However, while trips to the store are increasing, consumers still expect retailers to put specific safety precautions, such as social distance markers, in place.
  • Online shopping is now firmly rooted in 30% of all U.S. shopping trips. With online shopping reaching its tipping point during the pandemic, all signs point to U.S. consumers continuing to use this channel for 30% of all their trips now and in the future. Globally, online shopping accounts for 28% of all trips.
  • Customers generally support retailers’ COVID-related actions, except for rising prices. Wave 5 of the study found that 37% of shoppers noticed the rise of prices on virus-related items, but 72% of those reported the increase in prices was unnecessary.
  • Customers are fighting price hikes by shopping at stores where prices are low and searching for deals. As a result of rising prices, 58% of those surveyed are now shopping where regular prices are low, 43% are buying the lowest priced products, 36% are using coupons, 34% are searching online for best sales, and 21% are buying more private brand items.
  • Walmart dominates customers’ minds when it comes to value. Thirty-four percent of respondents rated Walmart first, with Aldi (12%) and Kroger (9%) coming in at second and third, respectively.

For this study, dunnhumby surveyed more than 32,000 respondents online in 22 countries: Asia (Australia, China, Hong Kong SAR, South Korea, Malaysia, and Thailand), Europe (Czechia, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, and United Kingdom), South America (Brazil), and North America (Canada, Mexico, and United States). The online interviews were conducted for Wave 1 from March 29-April 1, Wave 2 from April 11-14 and Wave 3 from May 27-31. Due to the rapidly unfolding crisis in North America, dunnhumby conducted another set of online interviews for Wave 4 from July 9-12 in the U.S., Canada and Mexico only. Wave 5 was conducted from Aug. 28-Sept. 3. Approximately 400 individuals were interviewed in each country for each wave of the study, and respondents were roughly 60% female and 40% male.


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