Scream Emojis and Stockpiling: Instacart Reviews a Year of Changing Shopping Habits

New report predicts how consumers will shop post-pandemic
Instacart Shopper Report
Photograph courtesy of Instacart

Consumers have broken dramatically with 100-year-old grocery habits since the pandemic, and established a new set of behaviors and trends that will evolve in a post-lockdown world, a new report from Instacart finds.

From more family members doing the shopping to seniors embracing digital to midweek trips to the grocery store, the report, Beyond The Cart: A Year of Essential Insights, features a mix of marketplace insights pulled from the Instacart app, along with unreleased data from a new survey conducted by the Harris Poll.

With the first stay-at-home order in North America issued in California on March 19, 2020, the shift to online grocery shopping was off to the races. “Almost overnight, millions signed up for online grocery delivery to get food on the table safely during a difficult time,” Instacart said. Its recently conducted survey by The Harris Poll found that nearly half of all Americans (48%) say they ordered groceries online during the pandemic. The poll of 2,038 U.S. adults was conducted from Feb. 25 to March 1.  

As shoppers have increasingly turned online during the pandemic, the report identifies six areas where consumer’s digital shopping behavior has changed as well as how the San Francisco-based company expects these behaviors will evolve in “life after lockdown.”

Gratitude for Groceries

Tracking the use of emojis and texts between Instacart customers and their Instacart shoppers, the volume of which increased by 50% in March 2020, Instacart gained a sense of how shoppers were feeling at the start of the pandemic.

“Consumer fear and anxiety were very apparent in the Instacart marketplace as stay-at-home orders and product shortages set in—tellingly, the “scream” emoji experienced the largest upswing in chat usage, ballooning to four times its normal usage,” said Laurentia Romaniuk, Instacart’s in-house trends expert, in a release. “However, feelings of fear and uncertainty were paired with and eventually gave way to an overwhelming sense of gratitude toward the essential shoppers picking and delivering their groceries. Use of the word ‘grateful’ increased across Instacart shopper chats to six times its normal usage and remains much higher than pre-pandemic averages a full twelve months later.”

Across the U.S., Instacart also saw a 13% bump in the use of the phrase “thanks” in customer-shopper chat. With ongoing customer-shopper chat trends showing continued elevated use of phrases and emojis that communicate gratitude, Instacart says it has “reason to believe that consumers will retain a deeper sense of gratitude toward Instacart shoppers—perhaps even permanently.”

Holiday Planning in a Pandemic

Perhaps a side effect of the “pandemic time warp” in which every day in lockdown feels indistinguishable from the day before, the report also finds that consumers, eager to have things to look forward to, started searching online for seasonal comforts and holiday-related items far earlier and in far greater numbers than in previous years. 

Searches for “Halloween candy” grew by 228% year over year in 2020. Year-over-year searches for “Christmas,” “Christmas sprinkles” and “Christmas decor” grew by 745%, 236% and 622%, respectively. Searches for “Easter candy” and “plastic Easter eggs” grew by 200% and 530%, respectively, year over year.

According to the Harris Poll survey data, nearly half of Americans (49%) said they had begun planning for the holidays earlier in 2020 than they had in years past. Instacart searches for comforting fall favorite “pumpkin spice” started to spike as early as March 16, 2020, 15 weeks sooner than the seasonal spikes of 2019 and 2018. Summer favorites like margarita mixers also trended earlier too: 51% of 2020 searches for “margarita mix” happened by the first week of June, a nearly 10% bump from the year before.

“Even as the world inches toward normality, we anticipate that 2021 consumer interest in holiday essentials will remain high as people plan for the biggest holiday ‘do-overs’ of their lives,” Instacart said regarding life after lockdown.

Future of Grocery from InstacartImage courtesy of Instacart

Shifting Domestic Norms and a Senior Surge

“The profile of the online grocery consumer has changed dramatically in the past year,” Instacart said. “Social distancing rules and COVID-19’s outsized effect on older adults have greatly affected who’s buying the household’s weekly groceries.”

Generational insights collected by Instacart reveal that customers over the age of 60 turned to online grocery last spring in record numbers to get their groceries delivered. Between the first and fourth quarter of 2020, Instacart saw a 9% increase in the number of seniors using the online grocery platform. Widespread adoption by seniors led the company to develop Instacart’s Senior Support Service, which to date has helped nearly 300,000 seniors learn to use the app. 

Additionally, the report finds that younger generations and other household members also stepped in to share the domestic load. According to the Harris Poll survey data, nearly 3 in 4 Americans who were the primary grocery shopper for their household before the COVID-19 pandemic (74%) report that someone in their household has taken on additional grocery shopping responsibilities since the start of the pandemic.

“The Instacart customer used to be primarily heads of households, now it’s everyone,” said the company, which post-pandemic expects the profile of the online grocery delivery customer to continue expanding to younger and older customers.

Midweek Mix Up

Instacart data indicates that the weekly 90-minute Sunday shop may be loosening its grip on shoppers’ weekend routines, as midweek grocery shopping remains popular as many employers embrace remote work. The share of Instacart orders placed on weekdays grew by 8% platform-wide in 2020, and orders placed during local working hours (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) increased by 32%.

“Online grocery fits seamlessly into the more flexible schedules that the world is moving toward after a collective awakening to the benefits of remote work,” said Romaniuk. “Given the trends we’re seeing, we expect many consumers to stick with their new mid-week grocery delivery routines, now that they’ve experienced the flexibility that online platforms like Instacart give them to build and maintain shopping lists throughout the week and easily place an order in between meetings and personal time, to be delivered in as fast as two hours.” 

What Consumers Are and Aren’t Buying

As the pandemic continued, Instacart observed four customer buying personas emerge:  

  1. Locked Down and Lovelorn: At the start of the pandemic, there was a notable plunge across the sexual and reproductive health categories. According to the Harris Poll data, 57% of surveyed Americans say that they turned their attention away from dating or relationships at one point during the pandemic and used the time to focus on themselves and other pursuits like baking and outdoor hobbies like grilling and birding. 
  2. Springtime Stockpilers: These consumers bought household essentials such as toilet paper, hand sanitizers, Lysol, PineSol, Clorox and batteries to stay well-stocked.
  3. Modern Day Homesteaders: These consumers were responsible for the surge in baking supplies, backyard barbecue essentials and bird food for newly purchased bird feeders.
  4. Locked-Down Lushes: As Instacart offers alcohol delivery and pickup across 25 states plus Washington, D.C., in partnership with more than 200 retail partners, including Aldi, Sam’s Club, BJs, Sprouts, The Fresh Market, BevMo and Total Wine & More, among others, it got a front row seat to another pandemic trend: the adult beverage boom.  

Canned or pre-mixed cocktail sales grew by 127%, while specialty beers and spiked seltzers grew by 96% and 131%, respectively, this year, reports Instacart. In the traditional spirits category, the hard liquor of choice was gin, which grew by 21% year over year. 

Alcohol trends from InstacartImage courtesy of Instacart

“Stockpiles may be here to stay,” Instacart said, which points to Harris Poll survey data suggesting that consumers will keep topping up their stockpile of cleaning supplies and household essentials well into the future. Meanwhile, “pantry prep” is another behavior that may stick.

According to Harris Poll data, many Americans say how to stock the pantry and/or refrigerator (29%), how to meal plan/prep (25%), how to enjoy leftovers (31%) and how to store leftovers (22%) are among the food lessons learned in the past year that will impact how they shop and cook in the future. And after an indulgent year for many, Instacart predicts a post-pandemic healthy eating surge.

With budgets remaining tight for many Americans post-pandemic, 36% of Harris Poll survey respondents said “how to save money on groceries” is among the food lessons they’ve learned in the past year. Instacart also reports elevated interest in digital promotions and coupons.

Grocery’s Race to the Future

“While consumer shopping habits will continue to evolve as the world inches closer to ‘normal,’ living through more than a year of distanced living, new habits and cultural norms have forever changed how many of us shop,” said Instacart, which points to Harris Poll data that found of those who bought groceries online during the pandemic, 77% indicated they are likely to continue doing so in the future. 

Instacart further predicts that it’s not just online grocery shopping that’s here to stay, but also speedy delivery. 

In an experiment, when presented with a slate of delivery options, including two-hour or less delivery, five-hour delivery, and other scheduled options throughout the day, an overwhelming 85% of customers opted for delivery in two hours or less.



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