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COVID changed the definition of grocery ‘essentials’

One of the most interesting trends to emerge in the fresh department in the past two years, says Jonna Parker, principal with IRI’s Fresh Center of Excellence, is consumers’ redefinition of “essentials.”
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When it comes to weekly must-haves from the fresh perimeter, that gallon of milk for breakfast cereal and the bag of apples for sack lunches aren’t headed off consumers’ grocery lists anytime soon. But the concept of essentials has broadened, Parker says, as consumers continue to eat more of their meals at home than they did pre-pandemic.

Although the exact share has bounced around somewhat amid climbs and falls in COVID cases in the past year, around 80% of meals still are eaten at home, according to IRI. And for all of those workers clocking in from the home office more often than they did in 2019, what might be seen—or what used to be seen—as a supermarket indulgence now is an affordable alternative to a workday restaurant purchase. Take flavored coffee creamer (dairy or nondairy): It may not be the least-expensive item to go into a shopper’s basket, but if coffee is a non-negotiable, and a flavorful addition to it helps make the workday go a little more smoothly, and at a significantly lower cost than a coffee-shop visit, it’s no stretch for that premium creamer to become an essential, too.

“Those types of essentials are what I think caught the industry off-guard, because of our thinking that all households and baskets are the same,” says Parker.

“About 40% to 50% of consumers each month say, ‘I’m only buying essentials,’” she adds. “But increasingly, that might mean the really good, high-end deli meats that can make for my at-home work sandwich. It can mean, I’ll buy this prepacked salad for $2.99 or $3.99, and I can have that as a healthy side dish—that’s an essential to some families.”

For retailers, that means it’s important not to scrap promotion of all premium, specialty and/or high-convenience fresh selections out of concern about consumers’ heightened budget-consciousness. Consumers will spend when they see high value relative to the other options—e.g., restaurant offerings—available to meet their meal and snack needs, Parker says.

That’s true, too, within the confines of the fresh department, recent data from IRI and The NPD Group indicates.

“Despite inflation, consumers are ‘trading up’ and driving volume share to premium brands in several categories,” IRI reported in September. Fresh eggs and butter are two of the fresh product categories seeing that trend play out, the Chicago-based researcher reported.

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