4 Ways COVID-19 Transformed Grocery Shopping

COVID-19's Impact on Grocery Shopping

4 Ways COVID-19 Transformed Grocery Shopping

The COVID-19 pandemic has had profound effects on our daily lives, with a noteworthy impact on grocery shopping and overall food consumption.

Previously, people could stop for coffee or breakfast on their way to work or take a midday lunch break at a local restaurant; however, that came to a grinding halt when stay at home orders were issued.

Entire offices and schools went completely remote, greatly altering eating patterns and habits. Individuals were staying at home more, restaurants were closing, and more meals were being consumed at home.1

Similar to trends seen during the 2008 recession, grocery store spending increased while spending in other categories decreased.2

Here are four ways COVID-19 transformed grocery shopping.

CAND Blog COVID-19 Grocery Shopping

1. Spike in Panic Buying

Back in March, many details of the coronavirus were still unknown and misunderstood, and there was uncertainty as to how long the lockdown period was going to last.

Panic buying is a normal response in times of uncertainty, but it resulted in shortages as buyers stock-piled water, gloves, bread, pasta, canned foods, hand sanitizer, and even toilet paper.2

People were being encouraged to only send one person from their household to the grocery store as infrequently as possible. This resulted in larger grocery shopping hauls with increased purchase of shelf-stable products larger sized items.3

From mid-March through June, 40-ounce nut and seed butters, 16-ounce packages of refrigerated cheese, and 24 packs of non-carbonated beverages all increased significantly as compared to last year, while their smaller size or single-serve counterparts saw a decline in sales.3

American families spent an average of $525 on groceries this March – an increase of 30% from March 2019. In addition to spending more, individuals are decreasing the amount of time spent in the store and limiting browsing of new products to focus on repurchasing their household staples.

Streamlined shopping trips have resulted in consumers relying more on recognizable brand names, lower prices, product images, and color-coded labels to make quick decisions while shopping in the current climate.2

The panic buying phase of the pandemic also resulted in grocery stores having to accommodate increased demand, with limits imposed on items as they flew off the shelves.

Grocery stores had to prioritize stocking their top selling items in order to keep up with demand, and large companies such as Frito cut the amount of SKUs they were sending to stores to get more of their higher selling items to the market.1

Food manufacturers were forced to delay the launch of new products or new flavors into the market until sampling stations return, creating issues for new companies trying to break into the market.

2. Focus on Private Labels

The COVID-19 panic has drawn more consumers towards private label brands. This same phenomenon was seen in the 2008 recession,3 and these brands are normally more affordable than traditional brand name products.

Budget-conscious consumers have stayed loyal to purchasing private label products through the pandemic, making it even more difficult for small brands to be competitive.

Another component of the rise in private label is the increase of organic private label offerings, which coincides with the health concern that has accompanied the pandemic.3

3. Increase of Plant-Based Purchases

Though the plant-based market has been increasing steadily over the past several years, the impact of COVID-19 has caused an even greater jump in plant-based grocery shopping.

According to the Plant Based Foods Association, sales of plant-based foods have increased substantially during the pandemic, with sales up 90% as compared to last March.4

More specifically, plant-based meat sales have increased whereas animal meat sales have declined, which is also compounded by COVID-19 outbreaks in meat processing facilities.Plant-based meat, cheese, tofu, and tempeh are among the items showing the most growth, with plant-based meat up 148% from last year and plant-based cheese up 95% from last year.4

4. Boom in Online Grocery Shopping

While online grocery was popular before the pandemic, stay at home orders and the panic buying period caused the demand to almost double.Grocery delivery and curbside pickup increased 31% in just two days from March 23 to 25, with 40% of online grocery orders the week of March 13th from customers using online grocery shopping for the first time.7

In other countries, demand for online delivery has exceeded capacity, resulting in restrictions of users to those who are over 70 years old or have chronic illness or disabilities.2

The pandemic has hit American families hard, with 7 million Americans having newly signed up for SNAP benefits since the start of the pandemic.

The USDA has implemented a pilot program to allow online grocery shopping with a debit card, with a similar program for students who would have received free or reduced school meals which also houses benefits on the same debit card.

This shift to provide online shopping for SNAP recipients marks an important consideration for added safety to allow at-home grocery shopping to populations that are the most impacted by the pandemic.


The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in drastic changes to the normal way of life, which has also greatly impacted where and how people are eating.

Grocery stores are still struggling with shortages due to the strain of high demand as a result of the pandemic, which leaves the question of how to strengthen the supply chain to prevent shortages from happening in the future.

As we move forward into a post-COVID world, it is going to be interesting to keep watch as to which trends have staying power and which are only markers of these unprecedented times.


  1. Reiley, Laura. “Bigger Hauls, Fewer Choices: How the Pandemic Has Changed Our Grocery Shopping Habits Forever.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 9 Sept. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/road-to-recovery/2020/09/01/grocery-shopping-coronavirus-impact/.
  2. Martin-Neuninger, Rosemarie, and Matthew B. Ruby. “What Does Food Retail Research Tell Us About the Implications of Coronavirus (COVID-19) for Grocery Purchasing Habits?” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 11, 2020, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01448.
  3. “3 Pandemic Shopping Trends That Are Guiding Spending.” SPINS, 6 Oct. 2020, www.spins.com/resources-pandemic-shopping-trends/.
  4. “New Data Shows Plant-Based Food Outpacing Total Food Sales During COVID-19.” SPINS, 20 Oct. 2020, www.spins.com/new-data-shows-plant-based-food-outpacing-total-food-sales-during-covid-19/.
  5. “The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Food Price Indexes and Data Collection : Monthly Labor Review.” S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1 Aug. 2020, www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2020/article/the-impact-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-on-food-price-indexes-and-data-collection.html.
  6. Markenson, Steve. “Taking Stock of Where We Are: A Look at the Impact of COVID-19 on Grocery Shopper Habits.” The Food Industry Association, 6 Aug. 2020, www.fmi.org/blog/view/fmi-blog/2020/08/06/taking-stock-of-where-we-are-a-look-at-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-grocery-shopper-habits.
  7. Kapner, Suzanne. “Coronavirus Crisis Reveals Retail Haves and Have-Nots.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 24 Mar. 2020, www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-crisis-reveals-retail-haves-and-have-nots-11585047603.

Meet the Author

Laurel Jakubowski

Laurel Jakubowski

I am currently an Associate Data Product Manager at SPINS, LLC where I work as a part of the Product Intelligence team. Previously, I worked in the regulatory department at a food manufacturer where I gained experience with ingredient documentation and nutrition labeling. I am currently serving as a CAND Social Media Co-Chair and I am also the Illinois State Coordinator for the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group.
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