After an initial rush to stores to prepare for coronavirus, U.S. consumers are now settling into a “home-confined buying” phase marked by higher purchases of food and beverages as they shelter in place, according to advertising efficacy specialist NCSolutions.
Household grocery spend remains elevated at 23% higher than pre-pandemic levels but has tailed off from an “extreme buying” phase in which consumer stockpiling hiked their purchases 35% above normal, New York-based NCSolutions said.
In this new home-confined buying stage, which began March 22, customers are putting more food and beverage into their carts as supply shortfalls continue to limit the availability of paper and household cleaning products, which were scooped up as news of COVID-19’s rapid spread heightened.
“Shoppers continue to hunt grocery store aisles for essential supplies. In some cases, they’re finding their favorite brands out of stock and are sampling other brands,” explained Linda Dupree, CEO of NCSolutions. “We expect Americans will adjust to a wider variety of the consumer products they’re used to buying — not only of brands, but also of types, flavors and styles. They may try cavatelli pasta or cherry-flavored yogurt for the first time because their usual is out of stock and end up discovering a new favorite.”
During home-confined buying, shoppers are filling their grocery baskets with larger quantities of frozen meals, cheese and lunch meat than they did last year, NCSolutions data reveals. Sales of frozen meals, for example, were “uncharacteristically high” between March 8 and March 28 versus the same period last year, as consumers built up a reserve by stocking their freezers, the company said.
Vegetables, salty snacks and cheese were the leading purchases for the week ended March 28. Beer and wine purchases, too, were higher than usual, with those categories ranking at Nos. 9 and 11, respectively, compared with Nos. 12 and 14 in the prior-year period. Chocolate fell to No. 18 during the extreme buying stage but climbed to No. 12 during the week ended March 28, likely boosted by the upcoming Easter holiday, NCSolutions said. Ice cream and cookies also have seen higher volume, rising 14 and five places, respectively, from two weeks earlier.
Cheese rose to No. 4 for the week ended March 21 from No. 6 in the year-ago period and has continued to climb, after many U.S. schools moved to remote learning and parents were “left to fend for themselves” for lunch sandwiches, NCSolutions said. At the same time, lunchmeat jumped to No. 32 — up from No. 42 a year earlier — and bread edged up from No. 7 to No. 5 between March 8 and 28.
“Now that the entire household is home all day, every day, Americans are consuming more items at home due to new daily routines,” noted Lance Brothers, chief revenue officer at NCSolutions. “What we’re hearing from our advertiser clients is that they’re pivoting quickly to adapt. They want to ensure their advertising reaches the right audiences and has the right message for the current environment. To make the right adjustments, they need to understand exactly how the grocery basket is evolving through each stage.”
While home-confined buying indicates consumers may be returning to a grocery basket mix reminiscent of pre-coronavirus spending, NCSolutions has identified five stages of purchasing (above) during the pandemic based on its data.
The first stage of “pre-COVID-19 buying,” the time period before Feb. 24, involved “business as usual” purchases of non-seasonal grocery and over-the-counter products buying.
Then the explosion of coronavirus news thrust consumers into the second “preparedness buying” stage. Starting on Feb. 24, a “noticeable uptick” in consumer packaged goods (CPG) purchases spurred a 2% increase in average household spending through March 10, NCSolutions said. The company’s data show that hand sanitizer and household cleaner purchases began taking off in the last week of February and peaked on Feb. 29, when bathroom tissue sales started to climb.
An inflection point occurred on March 11 as shoppers passed into the “extreme buying” stage by boosting pantry purchases, with the average household spend through March 21 soaring 35% versus pre-COVID levels. “During this stage, consumers clear out shelves and CPG retailers experience shortages of some items,” NCSolutions said. Customers stocked up on paper goods and household cleaning products and, for the first time, items such as toilet paper and shelf-stable soap were ranked among the top 20 purchased items (week ended March 14), the company noted.
Social distancing mandates at all levels of government and by retailers nationwide have pushed consumers into the current stage of home-confined buying. Visits to stores are limited, and average household spend declines 9% for the week of March 22 in comparison to the extreme buying phase. Still, customers continue to spend at levels 23% higher than pre-COVID levels.
The next, as-yet-unforeseen stage will be “new normal buying,” the time period after the pandemic, NCSolutions said. In this phase, shelter-in-place and other emergency measures will be lifted, and consumers will feel more comfortable about returning to physical stores. But it remains uncertain if their spending patterns will be different.
“This pandemic is altering consumer purchasing behavior, although it’s too early to tell if the change will be permanent,” Dupree observed. “We see grocery shoppers cycling through five discrete buying stages as their lifestyles are upended. This evolution will inevitably raise important questions for advertisers around brand loyalty, especially when we eventually enter a ‘new normal.’”
For our most up-to-date coverage, visit the coronavirus homepage.