Before the pandemic, many dinners were outsourced to food service. During the pandemic, approximately 93% of dinners are prepared at home for the same persons involved pre-pandemic but with “heavy preparation” and increased planning time. Approximately 42% of consumers bought the food supplies during their usual shopping trips, not as last-minute decisions.
Food Pick-up and Delivery
Although most restaurants converted from dine-in to solely takeout and delivery, about 24% of all eating occasions entail restaurant-prepared foods. For 35% of Gen Z, 36% of Millennials, 19% of Gen X, and 11% of Boomers, eating occasions involve such restaurant-prepared foods. Third-party delivery services are more important to Millennials than to the other generations. Lower-contact ordering significantly increased during the pandemic for restaurant pick-up, drive-throughs, and other options such as orders by phone, app, or on-site. Both the Millennials and Boomers prefer drive-through pick-up of restaurant-prepared food, and Boomers order more via phone, app, or on site.
About 37% of the eating occasions using foods outsourced to restaurants are planned by parents and 19% by non-parents. The planning time to purchase these foods during the pandemic has increased significantly to about a day before consumption (17%), so many eating occasions are now planned ahead.
Before the pandemic, there was high consumer awareness in promoting sustainability by decreasing single-use plastics. COVID-19, however, reintroduced the use of non-recyclable food plastic ware and packaging to limit the spread of the virus. It will be interesting to see how plastics are used after the pandemic.
In 2017, according to Retail Dive, food and beverage shopping in the U.S. was influenced by price, taste, convenience, and a “meaningful and memorable” “stress-free experience.” Other factors such as less processed food, ethically produced, healthful qualities, and fair labor treatment also influenced their buying behavior. Although one would have expected price to remain the leading factor when shopping for food and beverages during the pandemic because of a negatively impacted economy, “price was no object” to the U.S. consumer, because the primary concern during the early stages was to secure groceries and supplies, according to The Hartman Group. People stockpiled, creating shortages. A report published in August 2020 in the journal Food Security explained that stockpiling or hoarding is an indicator of panic buying in response to risks that, while they may not even be known, have potentially catastrophic results.
Interestingly, the pandemic caused an increase in disposable income for the U.S. consumer, especially for those whose jobs and wages were not affected by the virus; this is likely due to reduced spending on food and beverages outside the home, fewer options in recreational activities, and restricted travel. Thus, “trading up” to food and beverage with health and wellness qualities becomes possible and is seen as justifiable; food is treated as medicine. Romanian consumers in the quarantined area of Suceava mirrored this buying behavior of fresh and less-processed food, opting for the online purchase of fresh vegetables delivered directly by producers.
According to The Hartman Group study, the most important considerations for the predominant number of eating occasions during the pandemic are “fresh and less processed,” followed by “convenience.” Approximately a third of eating and drinking occasions are focused on basic health and well-being issues, particularly snacks before and after breakfast. This results in an increased demand for functional foods and beverages that address weight management, energy, hydration, digestion, and the cardiovascular system, especially those products benefiting the immune system. The focus diminishes, however, from lunch to afternoon snack to dinner and to after-dinner/late night snack.
By July 2020, after several months of the pandemic, the enthusiasm for cooking subsided and “cooking fatigue” set in. The U.S. consumer is now searching for new ways to plan meals and foods that are convenient to serve, reasonable in price, and have new, exciting flavors without compromising quality. There is increased interest in new cooking methods, culinary skills, flavors, and sauces. Foods, other than those usually consumed for a particular eating occasion, are now served at other times. For example, macaroni and cheese instead of eggs and bacon is breakfast. Millennials, more than the other generations, are searching for these new flavors.
Where Do We Go from Here?
A Nielsen Company study of consumers in 100 countries reported that changes in consumer behavior occur in six common stages. Consumers first focus on strengthening their health and immunity. Next, they purchase protection products to manage their health, prepare for isolation and quarantining, and hoard certain supplies in anticipation of additional restrictions. Consumers then try to live their now drastically altered daily life. When the presence of the coronavirus is finally considered manageable, consumers enter the sixth stage, which is the return to some semblance of pre-pandemic living conditions familiar to them. Although moving from one stage to another occurs at different speeds from country to country, worldwide consumer behavior seems to follow these stages.