Running Against Census in Food Retailing

Customer Story
December 17, 2021

Getting to the truth by focusing on actual buyers 

By Anne-Marie Roerink, Founder of 210 Analytics 

One industry that has been in tremendous flux over the past two years is the grocery or food retailing industry. When the world went into lockdown, people were forced to stay home. We stopped going out to restaurants and movies and spent that money at grocery stores instead.  

210 Analytics provides market research to the food retailing industry, and we use Alchemer to perform our analysis. We launched many more surveys in 2020 and 2021 to understand what trends were here to stay and what would revert when restrictions loosened up.  

The Secret Sauce is Your Sample 

Getting at the truth beyond the hype is one of the big advantages of working with Alchemer. Working together, we have been able to get a very accurate survey sample. That sample might not be a complete reflection of the census. If you don’t have a sample that accurately reflects the shopper base, you can’t really make predictions about what happens in the store. For example, we tend to stop surveys at 75 years of age because their purchases tend to become very habitual. Often those baskets grow very small and get folded into a younger family.  

It’s much easier to ask about past behaviors than to accurately predict the future. If we go back to pre-pandemic, we all ate out as much as we did because our evenings were busy. Our weekends were busy. Eating out was how we entertained with others. 

Movie Nights at Home 

Premium and ready-to-eat popcorn –food you would typically purchase at a movie theater – are up 15% because those movie nights have moved home, thanks to streaming services offering (and continuing to offer) movies directly on their service and in theaters.  

Meat and Meat Alternatives 

Meat sales have actually increased during the pandemic because people no longer ate at restaurants, and by the time food was delivered, it was often warm and not as appetizing. So people learned how to prepare more complex meals, such as lamb, seafood, and prime cuts of steak. Even after the pandemic is over, this trend might stay with us because the research indicates that people consider eating at home to be healthier and a lot less expensive.  

While we saw enormous percentage growth in plant-forward (vegetarian or vegan) foods like Impossible Burgers, the increase came from a small but dedicated base of consumers. Most people may experiment with meat alternatives but usually return to the real thing. Consequently, for the most part, plant-forward food sales have plateaued in sales and are decreasing slightly despite heavy promotions and price reductions. 

Frozen 

Looking at engagement across the population with the frozen foods you would buy in those long freezer aisles in the store, we see that boomers do not have a great love for frozen food. They associate it with lots of sodium and lots of processing from the TV dinners of the sixties.  

When you question younger audiences, especially millennials, they love frozen food. They even see it as being healthy because frozen foods have done a tremendous job in reinventing itself, taking out a lot of the processing and sodium to give credit where credit is due. The food is fresh when frozen; most of the fruit and veggies are frozen the same day they come off the field. One of the surveys we did with Alchemer found that 30% of Americans have invested in more freezer capacity at home. People bought additional freezer space because they are buying more frozen consistently. 

The perception that younger shoppers have for frozen food is entirely different than that of older shoppers. If you want to understand who buys frozen food, there’s no sense in having a true census-based cross-population sample. That’s because you are asking people who don’t engage with frozen food all that much, unlike the people who are buying it. 

Premium on the Rise 

Premium foods are growing across departments right now, which might be somewhat contrary to what makes logical sense. In the candy aisle, very dark premium chocolates are doing very well right now. People are choosing to have just one little square at a time. Premium cuts of meat and seafood are also doing well. These luxury items are doing well because people are not eating out as much and consequently saving money that they can spend on premium items. Additionally, we are living through a difficult time, and sometimes we want to do something nice for ourselves. The third reason is that people are entertaining at home, shifting their spending from restaurants to grocery stores.  

The Future of Food 

These are just a few of the trends we are seeing in how people shop and approach purchasing food in 2020 and 2021. What will 2022 bring? That probably depends as much on the supply chain and COVID-19 as anything. As schools and offices reopened, we saw a shift from larger tubs of yogurt to individual packs. More convenient sizes will be popular as long as people eat on the go. But if people return home, we expect the larger, bulk items to increase in sales.  

It’s fascinating, frankly, to look at what is happening outside of even their behaviors, but just the demographics. We still see that boomer shoppers are the majority spender. And that makes it so hard for the retailers today because boomers still love their paper circular. If you go to the younger generation in the marketplace, Gen Z, they prefer to look on their apps or social media. The difficulty for the retail industry is that the majority dollar still sits with boomers, while the growth sits with millennials – the next big generation. 

Making predictions at this point is very difficult, with so many influencing factors still in flux. That is why we, and most market researchers, will continue to survey audiences throughout the coming year. 

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