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  • Industry Voices: The Impact of COVID on Consumer Behavior

    Denise Purcell

    From online shopping, to the reinvigoration of stalled categories, to in-store changes that may be here to stay, the specialty food supply chain offered insights into the pandemic’s influence on consumer behavior. Here is some of what they had to say, excerpted from the recently released State of the Specialty Food Industry report, 2021-2022 edition

    “Home cooking trends that will stick include baking, pastas, grains, beans, and snacks. Online grocery shopping will continue growing because of the convenience factor of not having to spend an hour or three hours getting to and from the grocery store. And even if you are going to the store to get produce and dairy, you’ll supplement with online.”
    -chief merchandising officer of a specialty ecommerce retailer

    “All that difficulty that we saw during the initial impact had less to do with a trade-down mentality, or a size-up mentality and more to do with just ‘what can I get?’ So, we saw a lot of consumers just buying whatever they could find on the shelf, and thankfully our supply team did a lot of amazing work quickly changing procedures to be able to keep up largely with demand, which allowed us to be that sort of regular option on shelf for people to choose.”
    -regional sales manager at a specialty dairy brand

    “The one thing that changed drastically from the start of COVID was that people didn’t want any prepared foods. They didn’t want to eat anything that we touched. In the beginning, that was our one weak link. But they bought fruits and vegetables like crazy, which of course we had to put on the shelf. The prepared foods business has already come back very strongly. That business is now much bigger than it was originally because of the new customers that we’ve picked up.”
    -CEO of a specialty retail and foodservice outlet

    “Once you’re in the store there’s a relationship there, and that relationship is one where people have enough confidence and trust that they are willing to spend the time and energy in continuing to nurture it. That was the beautiful part of what happened this year.”
    -founder, owner of a multi-store specialty food retailer and foodservice operator

    “[Early on], people wanted more guidance on how to cook [meat] cuts that they weren’t familiar with that they might have experienced in a restaurant. We saw items like scallops increase in sales. We saw finer cuts of meat increasing in sales. Items that need a little bit more finesse. Caviar sales increased. People still wanted to experience those little pleasures that they would get when they would go out and then found ways to find that pleasure at home. It was cool to see how people adapted. They were still trying to find joy in the day-to-day.”
    -founder, owner of a multi-store specialty food retailer and foodservice operator

    “A lot of people are acting under the assumption that the world has changed permanently, but I’m more of the view that most people are going to be anxious to get back to life as it was. Yet, some of our businesses, like coffee shops, might not come back.”
    -CEO of a specialty retail and foodservice group

    “There were a couple of changes that we made back in September to some of the flow in the retail store. We took on an extra space to allow for curbside pickup and the addition of outside seating.
         Our whole mentality is ‘eat, shop, learn,’ so we have a bar in there where you can eat great foods. Our cheese and charcuterie selection, and the wines and beers are from small artisanal producers around the world, and we have to tell their stories. We’re highlighting special producers like that.
        People weren’t spending in the beginning to discover new products, but by September or October I think they were feeling like ‘we’re stuck in the house too long, and we should treat ourselves,’ and so the economy started to change a little bit in our retail.”
    -owner of a multi-store specialty food retailer

    “We made small changes to the retail flow of the new store because it’s about playing to the customers’ new behaviors; making it easier for them, making their experience still great, because shopping [at our stores] is an experience and that’s what we need to and want to deliver on. People don’t just come in and say, ‘Oh, I know that olive oil, let me buy it.’”
    -owner of a multi-store specialty food retailer

    “[Because of] the pandemic, we have such a mix of consumers now. We were the only store open during the [height of the] pandemic within our block radius for hot coffee. So now we’re getting the MTA bus drivers, were getting the incredible blue-collar workers, and the construction workers that were still working that didn’t have hot coffee. But [guests] are also discovering new things, and since we make sure we’re properly pricing things, they’re able to try different things. So, we’re curating based on this, too, thinking that average person wants to spend $5-7 or less.”
    -founder of a specialty c-store concept

    “The things you read about in the trend charts: its maximizing value, its comfort foods. Shockingly, though, it’s not hitting the high end [adversely] the way we thought it would. [Shoppers are] willing to spend on quality goods but they’re budgeting more, so when they do it, it might be an in-between treat or it’s really something special.”
    -national sales director at a specialty importer and distributor

    “We brought in essentials for guests. We wound up selling a whole lot more eggs, milk, butter, beans, and things like that. They’re back to cooking and they’re buying canned tomatoes, yeast, and flour. We used to sell a lot of it, and then we didn’t, and now everybody’s making pizza and bread at home, so we had to buy flour by the pallets, and we used to buy it by the cases. So, that’s the switch. We’re still selling a whole lot of those ingredients. Fresh meat and seafood is blowing up like crazy. Deli went wild. Sandwiches, bread, outrageous. So, we took on more local bread bakers.”
    -owner of a multi-store specialty food retailer

    You can learn more about market growth, fluctuations, and drivers, as well 10-year category tracking and forecasts by purchasing the State of the Specialty Food Industry, 2021-2022 Edition

    And weigh in on what you think are the pandemic-influenced consumer trends in our discussion in the Community Hub. 


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