How food shopping might change after the pandemic

Concerns over supply shortages and safety could change shopper habits permanently

One of the first startling things that happened in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic — at least to the people who weren’t sick — was that grocery shopping became a whole new experience. It was a lot harder to plan for, for one thing; the list a shopper takes to the store can sometimes bear only a superficial resemblance to the selection on the shelves.

It’s also something people are less eager to do than they were just a couple of months ago, both because of the shortages and out of concern for personal safety.

In person, anyway. Online grocery sales in the United States, which increased 22 percent last year over the year before according to Coresight Research, are projected to grow about 40 percent this year over 2019. People can’t shop the same way online as they do in a grocery store, which means they’re rethinking their approach to buying food, and to some extent rethinking their approach to food itself.

Online grocery sales in the United States are projected to grow about 40 percent this year over 2019.

How is all this rethinking affecting online food shopping? Not just in terms of current sales — grocery shopping’s a challenge and restaurants are closed, so volume is up — but in terms of what it might mean for the future. Will people go back to shopping and eating the way they did before? Or will they take their new habits with them into the post-coronavirus-crisis world?

Some early hints

It’s impossible to know the answer to that question, of course, but that doesn’t mean people in the sector aren’t thinking hard about it. Qurate Retail Group, which is headquartered in West Chester, Pa., is best known for its online and television-based outlets, QVC and HSN. A spokesperson for the group noted that its homebound customers are spending a fair amount of their time online or watching TV.

From late March through the end of April, QVC U.S. and HSN saw the number of homes viewing QVC or HSN each day up over 10 percent. Livestream viewing of live/original content was up more than 90 percent, with food-oriented programs like “Coffee Talk with David Venable” drawing large audiences; traffic to the company’s websites was up over 30 percent, with even higher growth rates from non-customers.

Specific to food sales, the company says it’s clear that customers are doing a lot more cooking at home. QVC U.S. and HSN culinary together are up nearly 40 percent year over year; the company’s U.K. and Italy markets are up well over 100 percent. Gourmet food is especially strong across all markets, with QVC U.S. and HSN combined up about 90 percent, and page views for food rose 66 percent on QVC.com and 48 percent on HSN.com in March 2020, compared with March 2019.

La vida pura

QVC and HSN are part of a $13.5 billion company, and provide everything from appetizers to wine to dessert, with an emphasis on traditional gourmet fare. Smaller, more specialized online meal providers are also flourishing during the lockdown. Los Angeles-based Veestro, which bills itself as the foremost vegan chef delivery service in North America, specializes in plant-based meals. It was founded in 2013 by CEO Mark Fachler and his sister Monica Klausner, the company’s chief marketing officer.

Smaller, more specialized online meal providers are also flourishing during the lockdown.

“My brother and I grew up in Costa Rica, eating a mostly plant-based diet,” Klausner says. “Fresh, home-cooked meals with tons of vegetables and fruit were the daily normal.” This regime, she says, is called “pura vida.” Fachler, who was pursuing a successful career in banking and finance, started the company when he couldn’t find the components of pura vida in his diet. “He was having this need to eat healthy food,” Klausner says, “but he couldn’t find anything that filled the need, so he decided to do it himself.”

Veestro is a subscription-based business, basically offering three menus. Pricing is based on menu and number of meals. The company ships to anywhere in the 48 contiguous states, with delivery time depending on location. Of the customer base, 70 percent are subscribers, 30 percent one-time buyers.

There was already a growing interest in vegetarian and vegan food before the coronavirus crisis, of course, and Veestro has been growing at what Klausner describes as a comfortable rate. Events have accelerated the process: This year, April was up 200 percent over April of 2019.

Looking ahead, Klausner sees the company’s expanded customer base — and further growth — as sustainable, however and whenever the coronavirus crisis resolves itself. “Life is going to be different,” she says, “and going out to restaurants is going to be more challenging than it was in the past. I definitely think there’s a good opportunity for us to keep our customer base and continue to grow.”

Take a number

On the other side of the continent — and the other end of the dietary spectrum — is Boston-based ButcherBox, which specializes in grass-fed beef and other high-end meat products, including heritage breed pork and organic chicken. Like Veestro, ButcherBox operates on a subscription basis.

Also like Veestro, ButcherBox has experienced a strong upsurge in demand since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. So strong, in fact, that it’s currently not taking new subscribers; customers who want to join the 10,000 or so members can go to the website and join a waiting list.

“The big spike started around St. Patrick’s Day,” says founder and CEO Mike Salguero, “and we lasted about 10 days before we had to put up a waitlist. Our members were getting more meat for their boxes. We have a core value of being member-obsessed, and we wanted to stay true to our members.”

Similar to his vegan counterpart, Salguero feels the change he’s seen in consumer behavior will endure. First of all, he believes that the pandemic, or pandemic behavior requirements, will last at least into the first quarter of next year. He also believes the DIY habits people are developing will stay with them. Social media, he notes, is full of pictures of people making their own bread.

Pursuing this thought, he believes the crisis will leave a permanent mark. “I’m 38 years old,” he says. “I’m at the tail end of the millennials. This is a defining moment for our generation and the people coming behind us. Everyone’s going to remember this. This notion of ‘Oh, I’ll just do it myself rather than rely on somebody else’ — I think that’s here to stay. I feel like this has changed the paradigm irreversibly.”

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