The coronavirus pandemic has pushed people down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs toward our basic hunting-and-gathering survival mode: shopping for hygiene products for home and personal care, seeking out masks (both functional and fashionable), and building out our pandemic pantries with shelf-stable foods.

In addition to the pure physiological need of food for survival, “Consumers have a greater focus on health and immunity. They also have a desire to exhibit more control,” Charlie Arnot, CEO of The Center for Food Integrity, said on the Professional Dairy Producers’ Dairy Signal webinar on consumer food trends during COVID-19.

We’ve become a nation of bakers: in the #StayHome era, bread machines emerged as a top-ten purchased product via ecommerce in the first quarter of 2020 in the U.S., and yeast and flour were hard-to-find for our pandemic pantries.

But food also became scarce for people in America already food-insecure, as people lost jobs, wages and work hours cut during the Great Shutdown of the U.S. economy. The pandemic shined an even brighter light on food security, with mass media highlighting unimaginably long lines at the San Antonio Food Bank.

Food became a key focus of everyday life during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people complied with governors’ shelter-in-place mandates and grocery stores enacted special hours to cater to older shoppers and those with compromised immune systems.

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) explored COVID-19’s impact on U.S. consumers’ food habits in the organization’s annual 2020 Food & Health Survey, the fifteenth year of the study.

The over-arching finding is that 8 in 10 Americans have altered their food habits in some way because of the pandemic. Changes related to food and grocery shopping especially impacted women, people under 35, and parents with school-aged children.

The biggest change to peoples’ food habits has been cooking at home more, among 60% of U.S. consumers. Other COVID-19 changes related to food and grocery shopping included snacking more between meals (particularly common among people under 35 and parents with children), washing off fresh produce more frequently, thinking about food more than usual, eating healthier than usual, and also eating more than usual, among other impacts detailed in the second bar chart.

More women than men tend to be thinking about food more often and eating more than usual in the pandemic era.

The pandemic era has also been about “health,” which may be an obvious top-line finding. But this health ethos has reshaped how consumers are shopping for food.

Over one-half of Americans say that healthfulness impacts their food shopping now. Whether and how food is processed, taste and price have also been important factors shaping grocery shopping during the pandemic.

When it comes to choosing what to eat or drink, overall health matters more than a food’s potential impact on weight by just a margin. More women than men are concerned about a food’s role in weight. People with higher levels of education are more focused on food’s role in health than weight, the study found.

In the past ten years, consumers’ emphasis on overall health has grown: 6 in 10 U.S. adults are thinking about what they eat and drink as part of their overall health context more in 2020 than they did in 2010.

The pandemic has also raised consumers’ concerns about health risks from catching the virus from public places, whether in sports stadiums, movie theatres, restaurants, or grocery stores. In the context of the pandemic, about one-half of people were concerned about eating food prepared outside the home, which is a key driver to more Americans cooking at home. (Food delivery services and subscription food boxes have been beneficiaries of this shift to cooking and eating at-home).

IFIC believes that the pandemic has fundamentally changed consumers’ notions of food safety. Over 40% of consumers were concerned about eating food prepared outside the home (say, from takeout or delivery), or shopping for groceries online. Still, in-person shopping was down in the pandemic, and online shopping grew. More people who felt in very good health (67%) shopped in a grocery store at least once a week compared with 50% of people in fair/poor health.

Finally, as we’ve seen hockey-stick growth of telehealth in the pandemic used by health consumers who sought to avoid in-person visits to doctor’s offices or hospital clinics, one in five people were also using a mobile health monitoring device or app. Furthermore, two-thirds of people using that digital health tool said the device led to healthy changes in their life.

Health Populi’s Hot Points:  U.S. consumers planned to go to the grocery store and retail pharmacy at least as much after as before the COVID-19 outbreak, discovered in survey research published 9th June 2020 by L.E.K. Consulting Center for Consumer Insights collaborating with Civis Analytics.

The last chart gauges consumers’ engagement pre-pandemic for usual life-flows like going to outdoor parks, visiting friends in their homes, going to movies and live concerns, exercising in gyms, hanging out in bars, going to the barber and beauty shop, and dining out.

As the table illustrates, grocery stores have been seen as safe and dependable destinations before and during the pandemic. outdoor parks will garner favor through and after COVID-19, with restaurants, salons, bars, and gyms taking a big hit in a post-pandemic world, at least at this stage of consumers’ personal forecasts.

The Ipsos Consumer Health & Safety Index was published last week, assessing consumers’ perceptions of attributes consumers value in retail in the pandemic era. A few food chains stood out from the crowed, including:

  • Whole Foods (“the health and safety all-star,” in Ipsos’ words), in which associates wear face coverings, respect 6-foot boundaries in the store aisles and check-out lanes, have plexiglass at checkout, and contactless payment available;
  • Costco, where most employees wear face coverings and the store implemented physical distancing markers; and,
  • Trader Joe’s, which carefully monitors customer foot traffic at the entrance.

In “The New Retail Health” chapter in my book HealthConsuming: From Health Consumer to Health Citizen, I detail the growing role of the grocery store as a health destination. Grocery stores now embed retail pharmacies, dietitian advice, exercise areas, digital health kiosks like Higi (which operates over 10,000 FDA-cleared Smart Health Stations in grocery stores and pharmacies), and center-store aisles overflowing with gluten-free and healthy food options.

In the shared coronavirus pandemic experience, most people have evolved into health consumers, and their homes as personal health hubs where we’ve learned to hunker down, cook, bake, play board games and assemble puzzles, and sleep well. Grocery stores have earned consumers’ valuable trust when they’ve taken on nutrition, hygiene, and public health work-flows. Expect grocers to extend this role in their local communities, offering more healthcare, healthy activities, and health promotion to continue to earn a high share of shopper dollars, engagement, and loyalty.