NEW YORK — Convenience retailers were forced to shift gears as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the United States in March 2020. Similarly, consumers quickly changed their behaviors and new research indicates some changes are here to stay.
According to NielsenIQ, new habit-forming purchase behaviors are poised to have lasting impacts on the sales performance of select categories. "As vaccine rollouts progress and shoppers begin returning to brick-and-mortar stores more frequently, some pandemic-related consumption shifts will fade while some will have a lasting impact on purchase behavior," it said.
In recent research, NielsenIQ examined millions of brick-and-mortar and online shopping occasions to identify which categories have shown a consistent level of increased purchasing over the 14 four-week periods since the start of COVID. The insights revealed sustained purchasing changes — which are measured over seven months or more as having consistently higher than average growth in shopping occasions vs. pre-pandemic periods — that can be viewed in four sustained growth themes that have developed in the last 12 months.
A Generation of Germaphobes
With the virus quickly spreading, cleaning and hygiene became a top priority. Sales of cleaning suppliers, including multipurpose cleaners, disinfectants and hand sanitizers, to record levels, according to NielsenIQ, and with a rising number of self-described germaphobes emerging, chances are good that the more clean-conscious mindset that has taken hold will remain in place long after the pandemic.
Online sales of hand sanitizer increased 357 percent, while in-store categories that showed consistent growth include multipurpose cleaners (32 percent), and kitchen and bathroom sanitizing products and concentrates (29 percent).
Beyond sanitizing kitchens for virus-fighting concerns, the demand for cleaning products was also driven by continuous at-home eating. According to Carman Allison, vice president of consumer intelligence at NielsenIQ, homebound lifestyles also drove demand for bathroom cleaners, floor care and, of course, paper products; however, as people begin shifting to their former pre-COVID behaviors, a more normalized trend can be seen on the horizon as it relates to cleaning and paper products.
The pandemic gave consumers the opportunity to experiment with new foods, flavors, ingredients and recipes they traditionally avoided due to a lack of familiarity, experience and confidence with preparation and cooking techniques.
According to NielsenIQ, seafood, plant-based meat alternatives, fresh herbs and marinades have shown consistent in-store growth throughout COVID-19 and many industry experts foresee staying power for each.
NielsenIQ's research found that alternative meat sales increased 25 percent, year-over-year, during the 52 weeks ending May 1, 2021. The trend is expected to continue post-pandemic. Meat alternatives also made great gains among online shoppers, which drove the plant-based meat category up 160 percent. Accordingly, plant-based food demand doesn't appear temporary but likely represents a lasting shift in consumer preferences, the research firm noted.
With the health crisis came stay-at-home directives across the country which led to an upswing in consumers eating at home — a benefit to grocery stores and online retailers but bad for the restaurant industry.
With commuting to work and school drastically impacted, breakfast establishments and coffee shops were among the hardest hit during the pandemic. The less harried morning routines, which boosted demand for sausage, waffles and cereal, allowed families to delay their breakfast time and defer to a bigger meal later in the day. It remains to be seen if these categories will retain their prominence as the pandemic subsides, NielsenIQ said.
Beyond eating, shoppers adopted a do-it-yourself approach to beauty and personal care throughout the pandemic. According to NielsenIQ's Summer COVID Survey, shoppers show no signs of slowing down with 15 percent of U.S. beauty consumers cutting their own hair, 19 percent embracing a more natural look and 26 percent wearing less makeup overall.
Higher Expectations for Convenience
The pandemic highlighted the role convenience plays in daily routines, and many consumers adopted "the simpler the better" mantra as words to live by, according to the research company.
Not only did COVID-19 change how consumers shop, but also what they put into their shopping carts. According to the Power of Frozen 2021 report released earlier this year by the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI) and FMI – the Food Industry Association, the pandemic spiked demand for frozen food of every kind, with NielsenIQ data showing a 2020 year-over-year jump of 23 percent and sales of more than $66 billion.
As one of the fastest-growing categories this past year, there are clear signs that the trend toward frozen foods will continue to grow beyond the pandemic.
"Frozen foods [were] a pandemic powerhouse, ringing in $65.1 billion in retail sales in 2020, a 21-percent increase compared to a year ago," said AFFI president and CEO Alison Bodor, who noted that 2020 frozen food sales grew in both dollars (21 percent) and units (+13.3 percent), with nearly all types of frozen foods seeing double-digit sales increases.
NielsenIQ's Allison said many manufacturers "took full advantage of seeking to re-educate consumers on the freshness, quality and value of frozen products — all of which have really evolved over time as well."