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Shopping in Place: How Quarantines Affect Grocery Carts

It may not come as a huge surprise, but in the current COVID-19 environment, we’re seeing an unprecedented shift toward online shopping. Consumers are flocking to online platforms and downloading shopping apps on their phones. Headlines have described platforms like Instacart as being “overwhelmed.” Social distancing and online shopping are like chocolate and peanut butter (two items that I should have stocked up on). And there isn’t a clear understanding of when things might return to normal. 

When specifically looking at grocery shopping, however, the measurable shift in behavior is a bit unique. In short, the overall demand driven by the “stock up and buckle down” mentality has driven consumers to both actual shelves and virtual ones. Anyone who has embarked on an adventure to a local supermarket recently has probably witnessed depleted stock, and those who are accustomed to two-hour or two-day delivery windows are having their patience tested. The ravenous toilet paper phenomenon is perhaps worthy of its own primary research study. 

While the shortterm effects on brick-and-mortar and e-commerce are already being felt and measured, there are potentially greater questions around the longterm effects of a virus-driven anomaly in consumer grocery shopping behavior. We’re witnessing acceleration in shopping activity among age groups and within categories that were previously tagged as “low growth.” For instance, older age groups tended to greatly prefer in-store shopping — and many grocery categories were still hovering around the 5 percent online penetration rate, with only moderate growth year-over-year. However, according to our most recent consumer survey, 35 percent of people 65 years old or older are now avoiding stores to varying degrees, with 31 percent avoiding crowds and 6 percent avoiding stores altogether. 

Therefore, while brands and retailers have been witnessing and expecting further growth, this shift in shopping behaviors — particularly among older cohorts — may alter projections and require retailers to revisit their definitions of core shopper personas. 

While it would be reasonable to expect behavior to rubber band post-pandemic, the important question is, “how much?” If I successfully bought frozen meals and canned soup for the first time — or for the first time online — during this period, and had a reasonably positive experience, what’s the likelihood that I’d change my habits back? 

Already, we’ve seen that the online availability of groceries and household essentials are giving people peace of mind. Week-over-week, as measurable online grocery shopping behaviors have increased, people have likewise reported an increased degree of confidence regarding their preparedness to face COVID-19. Specifically, confidence has risen a relative 45 percent (from 42 percent of consumers on March 2 to 61 percent on March 16) this month, despite all news that might lead expectations to the contrary. Consumers will not likely forget which shopping experiences provided relief, and this positive attitudinal response could lead to longterm shifts in both loyalty and behaviors.

Of course, the impact for a given product or retailer may vary based on their ability to provide the goods that people are seeking the most. To this extent, some categories in particular have seen incredible lift in online shopping activity. Indeed, when examining activity over the last two weeks of February vs. the first two weeks of March, dozens of common grocery items have experienced a burst. Among them, increased shopping activity for rice (93 percent), pasta (78 percent) and soup (68 percent) were quite significant. Traditionally, these are considered high-frequency food staples in most households, but are still bought predominantly in-store. And because they don’t carry the “perishable” tag (like milk) or the desire to be picked out (like bread, fruits or vegetables), consumers may find the online experience satisfactory. Thus, a shift in these types of categories could persist at greater rates, and fundamentally change the way consumers perceive their reallife baskets vs. their virtual baskets.   

As consumer attitudes and behaviors toward online shopping invariably shift, so too must retailers’ response plans.

Carl Van Ostrand is the vice president of consumer insights for DISQO, an audience-first insights platform amplifying innovation via a symphony of high-fidelity data.

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