The Initial Shopper Verdict is in: What the HRA Consumer Panel is Telling us About Changes in Lockdown Food and Drink Habits


What the HRA Consumer Panel is telling us about changes in lockdown food and drink habits:

‘Unprecedented’ is a word we’re all hearing a lot of at the moment, it feels over-used but to be fair it just about sums up 2020 so far. When the Covid-19 crisis began it was difficult to appreciate the spiralling effects of the crisis on so many parts of our society, health system and economy.

The impending threat of lockdown led to stockpiling like we’d never seen before and this, in turn, led to some extreme sales patterns. It’s crass to describe categories as ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ in this environment, but the fact is that food and drink purchases changed radically over a couple of days in March. There was huge demand on manufacturers of cupboard staples, sales of some of which have been on the downturn for years. In contrast, reports suggest fresh food sales have been declining as consumers focus on making foods last so they can avoid the dreaded supermarket trip which now takes longer, costs more and carries an (albeit very low) health risk.

It is fair to say the current crisis has really shaken up the way that we are living now. At HRA, we wanted to take a quick snapshot to explore how the crisis and the lockdown have affected the way in which people are shopping and consuming food and drink. How many people are really stockpiling? Are people really trying out new home cooking recipes with their new spare time or are they relying more on easy, convenience foods? We conducted a ‘Snap’ survey with around 100 respondents at the end of March and this is what our consumer panel research turned up. The headline key findings are:

1. While frozen and tinned foods soar, ready meals suffer

We asked people what kinds of items they are buying more or less of in the current climate.

  • For most food categories, people admit to buying at least the same, if not more than they were before the crisis. There are few categories where people say they are buying less.
  • Ready meals, pizza and meat alternatives brands seem to be suffering as these were the only categories where people buying less outweigh those buying more.
  • The top items people say they are buying more of are tinned and frozen foods with 41% of respondents purchasing more than they would usually.
  • This was followed by cupboard foods e.g. pasta and rice, where a third of respondents admit to buying more.
  • 22% of consumers admitted to buying more alcohol.
  • 25% of consumers say they are buying more fresh fruit and vegetables (compared to 16% buying less).

These results seem to suggest while consumers are unsurprisingly being drawn to long-lasting foods, many are dedicated to continuing to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables over ready meals and prepared foods. Having more time to spend on food preparation and a widespread desire to boost immunity are likely to be contributing to consumer desire to increase fresh fruit and vegetable consumption. However, with the expected effects of the labour shortage on fresh produce availability, it’s likely tinned and frozen vegetable sales will remain elevated.

Reasons for these patterns are multifaceted and are not solely consumer choice but distribution issues, enforced retail limits on products, and indeed retailers dedicating less resource and shelf space to slightly more niche items like meat alternatives and gluten free products.

2. While home deliveries are still for the minority, store footfall is dramatically down

58% of our sample were frequent grocery shoppers pre-March 2020, visiting a grocery store several times a week or more. Social distancing measures have certainly had an impact on grocery shopping with 63% of our respondents telling us that they are now grocery shopping much or slightly less than they were pre-March 2020.

A relatively small 14% told us that their frequency of shopping trips has stayed the same with the majority of these weekly shoppers pre-lockdown. A similar percentage (12%) said they were visiting stores about the same amount, though they were shopping in smaller stores.

The number of online shoppers grew significantly from 10% normally/mainly shopping online increasing to 16% since the crisis began in March 2020. With home delivery capacity maxed out, the race is on for retailers to rapidly expand their delivery capabilities.

3. 57% are buying more….and 67% are spending more

57% of our survey respondents told us that they have been purchasing more food over the last few weeks compared to what they normally purchase. Of these shoppers increasing the volume of their shop, around a quarter were buying much more. This is compared with the 13% who told us that they are buying less.

When asked about how much they thought they were spending on grocery shopping, 67% felt they were spending more. Obviously, most of this is down to the 57% buying more, though some is likely to be down to retailers reducing the number of offers on products to dissuade stockpiling as well as switching from out of home to in home food and drink consumption occasions.

covid-19 spending habit graph

4. Consumers are completely changing where they shop

As is to be expected, it’s not just what people are buying that has been changing, but also where they choose to shop. Only 30% of respondents told us that they haven’t changed where they do their shopping.

  • The type of outlet which has seen the greatest increase in footfall would appear to be small supermarket outlets as 31% told us that they have been shopping in these stores (e.g. Tesco Express) more frequently.
  • Local independent stores and corner shops may be in for some growth as 22%and 23% respectively say they have been visiting these shops more frequently.

5. Cooking from scratch 

While we can already start to see some of the sales data coming out from the retailers on what people are buying, what is less known is how people are consuming food at home.

  • When asked about how their cooking habits have changed over the last few weeks, 60% said they are now cooking from scratch more. This ties in with the reduction in ready meal sales and suggests people are seeing Lockdown as an opportunity to use their time to improve their culinary skills.
  • Similarly, 49% told us that they tried out some new recipes, 32% are making up their own recipes and 29% are now experimenting with different ingredients.

Consumers are clearly being more creative with their food with new recipes and batch cooking gaining popularity.

When asked about who in the household was getting involved in the cooking, it seems as though the main ‘chef’ in households has not changed with 59% telling us that those involved in the cooking in their household has not changed since the crisis. However, 21% told us that their partner is now more involved in cooking/ grocery shopping.

6. Consumers savour their weekend habits

When looking at whether consumers are still treating themselves even in the midst of a national lockdown, we asked our survey respondents whether they are still trying to mirror their weekend behaviours, despite the closure of restaurants, pubs and bars. 36% told us that they are now putting extra effort into cooking on the weekend or are trying to make a special weekend meal.

15% are still purchasing take-aways and 12% are replacing eating out/ takeaways with a quality ready meal. From these results, it seems that some consumers are still trying to maintain a new form of routine in their lives despite the lockdown, in trying to mimic their weekend consumption behaviours.

7. At-home wine consumption is on the rise 

One of the major concerns around the psychological effects of social distancing is that it will drive alcohol consumption up as loneliness and boredom set in and certain barriers to alcohol consumption (e.g. driving, being in the workplace) are essentially removed. Of course, this is tempered by reductions in social occasions where drinking would be the norm. Therefore, we were interested to see how total alcohol consumption has been affected at this stage in the lockdown

  • For spirits, wine and beer/cider, around 2/3 of respondents claim they are drinking about the same (including if not drinking it at all).
  • For wine and beer/cider, consumption looks like it has been on the rise as more people are drinking more (18%) rather than less (10-15%).
  • The discrepancy is particularly clear for wine where almost double the number of people say they have been drinking more rather than less. As a drink that easily accompany a meal and that are frequently drunk at home, this is not particularly surprising.
  • For spirits however, slightly more people say they are drinking less (17%) rather than more (15%). The apparent reduction in overall spirit consumption is likely tied to the absence of bars and club consumption occasions.

It seems that the UK lockdown measures have not wildly changed consumers’ alcohol consumption levels so far, though as the warmer weather sets in and the effects of social isolation become more apparent, this may well change. With many people keeping their alcohol consumption fairly consistent, this ties in with people trying to mirror their weekend treat behaviours that they had before the lockdown and therefore alcohol still plays a part in these habits.

alcohol consumption during coronavirus graph

What does the future hold?

While this survey has produced some interesting figures, it will be interesting to see if these figures will change dramatically within the next few weeks as people get more settled into ‘Lockdown Life’, potentially allowing them to slip back into some of their old habits.

The most interesting question that remains is whether the new habits that consumers have had to adopt so suddenly in the current climate will continue into their normal routines once we emerge from the crisis or will they be forgotten? Will we see more home-cooking from now on and will this have a lasting effect on demand from retailers?

Through tracking consumer views and behaviours over the coming months, we hope to answer some of these crucial questions.

Interested in using our panel to answer some of your questions? Contact us by phone or email [email protected] or [email protected].

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