CHICAGO — The COVID-19 pandemic prompted significant changes to the rhythm of Americans' eating patterns, disrupting the usually predictable habits formed by daily routines and needs. More than two years later, just as these patterns were returning to pre-pandemic normalcy, inflation has disrupted them again, according to a recent report by The NPD Group.
"The rate of change in U.S. consumers' eating behaviors continues at a dizzying pace," said David Portalatin, report author and NPD food industry advisor. "Anyone hoping to return to normal must understand that there is no normal, only an ongoing evolution as we respond to new realities."
According to the recently released 2022 edition of "Eating Patterns in America," six macro themes are shaping the new realities of food and beverage consumption behaviors:
1. Economic transition — Consumer spending experienced a stimulus-fueled surge in 2020 and 2021 that extended into the first quarter of 2022, after which inflation and economic uncertainty rose to the forefront. The positive and negative disruptions in the past few years could make year-over-year economic metrics less straightforward than they would ordinarily be.
2. Inflation — Consumers are unlikely to reduce their food and beverage consumption in the face of inflationary pressure, but they will find ways to manage and allocate their food dollars. Inflation is more moderate for food away from home than food at home, with the typical restaurant meal costing 3.4 times more than in-home food sourced from retail, according to the report. To offset rising food costs, consumers are hunting for bargains when they shop for groceries, eating more meals at home, and cutting back on restaurant visits.
3. Income bifurcation — The difference in behaviors among income groups is a key theme shaping the food and beverage landscape. Trends of upper- and lower-income consumers are starkly divergent, and income bifurcation has profound implications for the total share of stomach trends, retailer and restaurant choice, dealing and promotions and brands vs. private labels.
4. Sticky behaviors — Many eating behaviors adopted during the pandemic reflect a rapid acceleration of behaviors that were established long before the pandemic, such as consumers eating most of their meals at home. Food and beverage behaviors may continue to normalize, but the consumer landscape has been transformed as consumers created new capacities and restaurant operators expanded capabilities to serve a more home-centric consumer.
5. Total wellness — Consumers are finding a balance between foods that contribute to their physical well-being and foods that serve more emotional needs. They are increasingly in tune with the functional attributes of various foods and beverages that can contribute to both sides of this equation.
6. Return to convenience — Going back to school and work create time pressures for home cooks and foodservice customers alike. While home-centricity remains more prevalent, the return of mobility reintroduced the need for speed and convenience. For some occasions, this means a visit to a quick-service restaurant, but for others, consumers want to retain their new at-home capacity while incorporating some shortcuts or time-saving techniques.
"America's eating patterns are shifting to adjust to new realities, and food manufacturers, foodservice operators, and retailers will need to adjust their offerings and services accordingly," Portalatin said. "Although the one constant is change, there is a constant to count on: the U.S. consumer will always need to eat, and then it's a matter of figuring out what, how, when and where."
Based in Chicago, The NPD Group offers data, industry expertise and prescriptive analytics to help clients grow their businesses in today's retail landscape and prepare for the future.