Woman wearing a protective face mask browsing the frozen food section while shopping at a supermarket.
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10 Ways Our Grocery Shopping Habits Have Changed, One Year into the Pandemic

updated Mar 17, 2021
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In the earliest days of the pandemic, we helped Kitchn readers navigate some of the scariest unknowns — particularly when it came to shopping for the groceries we needed in order to feed ourselves and our families. We were in the same rocky boat as you, so we investigated competitive online grocery delivery time slots, figured out how to source ingredients from local bakeries and restaurants, rounded up the best sites to use to get fresh food delivered, consulted experts for grocery shopping safety tips, and a whole lot more.

What we thought might be a two-week lockdown turned into 52+ weeks of witnessing COVID-19 change our world as we once knew it. And while we originally speculated that most of those changes would be temporary, like a light switch flicked off and back on again, it’s more likely that a lot of our “new normal” is here to stay.

Now, with vaccinations rolling out (we know so many people who have gotten at least the first shot and we are so excited!), it does seem like there is a light at the end of this very dark, long tunnel. We are hopeful about the future, but we’re also realistic about what things will continue to stay the same. We likely won’t grocery shop the way we did in 2019 ever again. What’s waiting for us on the other side? In order to fully understand what’s in store for the future, we analyzed how grocery shopping changed in 2020. Let’s take a look.

1. We’re ordering more groceries online than ever before.

This might sound like a big “duh” to anyone who scrambled to secure an online grocery delivery time slot last spring, but now that we have a year of data to back it up, the magnitude is truly shocking: In the summer of 2019, 81 percent of consumers surveyed had never ordered groceries online before, per a Gallup poll. A year later that dramatically changed, with almost one-half of Americans ordering grocery items online by summer 2020, per data gathered by FMI-The Food Industry Association.

Costco reported that demand for same-day grocery delivery rose 450 percent. Companies like Instacart, AmazonFresh, Shipt, Walmart, and more all scaled up to meet customer demand, both for delivery and curbside pickup. Even Aldi threw its hat in the ring, expanding online ordering and curbside pickup options via Instacart significantly at the end of last summer. We predict the trend is here to stay. According to a report from Adobe, online grocery shopping grew by 230 percent in February 2021 alone.

Note: While online grocery shopping services existed long before the pandemic hit, wariness of COVID exposure prompted people to justify the extra costs and fees. Unfortunately, this created an impossible situation, shifting health risks to in-store employees and gig workers instead.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: CC Buckley

2. We’re shopping at fewer stores than we used to.

For those still shopping in stores, the days of leisurely perusing multiple grocery stores to gather ingredients for a single meal are long over. According to data from FMI-The Food Industry Association, 40 percent of people are making fewer trips to fewer stores than they were pre-pandemic.

We’re also much less likely to make unplanned trips to the grocery store in hopes that dinner inspiration will suddenly strike. “People now go to the store with purpose,” said John Owen, Mintel’s associate director for food and retail, to Kim Severson of the New York Times.

Credit: Sorbis/Shutterstock

3. We’re looking to get in and out of stores quickly.

Pandemic-era grocery shopping has become an exercise in self-preservation: Get in, get what you need, and then get out as quickly as possible. With the shutdown of sample stations, the implementation of one-way shopping aisles and mask-wearing policies, plus expanded self-checkout options, grocery stores have enacted safety measures meant to reduce extended foot traffic as much as possible.

Customers are clearly aligned: Nearly 9 in 10 respondents of a survey conducted by The Hartman Group reported altering how they grocery shopped this year, with 32 percent admitting quicker shopping trips. Perhaps contributing to quicker shopping trips, 25 percent of people reported that they now purchase a smaller range of items (note, range, not quantity).

For better or worse (worse in the case of those who used grocery shopping as an outlet), the pandemic has made us more efficient grocery shoppers. As more Americans get vaccinated, we’re keeping an eye on this trend to see if it reverses.

Credit: Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images

4. We’re spending more money per trip.

With people cooking at home more than ever before, this year ushered in higher-than-average grocery bills. And Kitchn has the data to prove it: When we surveyed our readers last October, a staggering 48 percent of respondents reported spending more on groceries than they were before the pandemic. Here’s one such example.

We spoke with financial expert Lauren Silbert, VP and general manager of The Balance, who conducted a pandemic-related financial survey with the same findings. “Incredibly, almost 40 percent of respondents said they’ll keep spending more money on groceries once the pandemic ends.” She cites increased culinary skills and knowledge of home cooking as a major reason for this change.

There’s also another part of the equation that explains increased grocery bills: “Grocery prices rose too. By the end of 2020, grocery prices were about 4.6 percent higher than the previous year,” said Silbert.

5. We’re no longer doing most of our shopping on Sundays.

Historically, Sundays are the busiest day of the week to grocery shop, but according to a report from Placer.ai, Saturday now takes the top spot. In 2020, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays saw year-over-year increases in grocery shopping (with Saturday topping them all), while Sunday saw a decline, as reported by Forbes.

The report cites more people working from home as the reason for more mid-week grocery shopping — leaving Sunday for other activities. Does that mean Sunday is the best day of the week to shop now? We see this continuing, as lots of companies roll with more casual WFH-polices in 2021 and beyond.

Credit: Sean Locke/Stocksy

6. We’re back on the meal-kit/food-subscription train.

Remember when meal-kit subscriptions were the food industry’s shiny new toy a decade ago? After an initial explosion in the category, public interest waned and then leveled out. Take, for example, 2019, when the meal-kit category saw only 0.6 percent growth at the retail level. By January 2021, it grew by 18.7 percent, according to data from Nielsen.

The pandemic has a lot to do with it. Meal-kit and food-delivery subscriptions are a convenient workaround, helping people to avoid grocery stores and get fresh, ready-to-cook food sent straight to their doors. They also provide lots of fatigued home cooks with fairly easy-to-execute ideas for new meals (and all the ingredients needed to make them).

In addition to traditional meal kits (like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh), fresh produce subscription boxes (like Misfits Market), direct-to-consumer meat delivery services (like ButcherBox and Crowd Cow), coffee subscriptions (Bean Box, Atlas Coffee Club, and Blue Bottle), and booze delivery services (Drizly and Minibar) also saw a huge surge in demand. Some of these offerings became so highly sought-after that they needed to implement waitlists until said demand could be met. People have been getting their boxes and many customers have become loyal.

Credit: Sara Tane

7. We’re all clamoring for lots of the same ingredients.

The early days of the pandemic were marked by an influx of panic purchasing. Shelves were wiped clear of essential items like toilet paper, packages of chicken thighs, yeast, and shelf-stable pantry items like rice, dried beans, and pasta. After initial stockpiling died down, we then embarked on the collective cooking of bandwagon recipes making their rounds on Instagram and TikTok.

There were the early days of banana bread and sourdough, when everyone needed something to make with their rotten bananas and flour was nearly impossible to come by. Then came the whipped Dalgona coffee craze, which landed instant coffee a spot at the top of everyone’s grocery list. Months later, we experienced The Great Bucatini Shortage, and just a few weeks ago, we were barraged with an influx of TikTok feta pasta, which cleared supermarket shelves of feta and cherry tomatoes.

What’s with all of the viral recipe explosions and our willingness to partake in them? Food keeps us connected, and during a year when physical gathering hasn’t been on the table, the virtual camaraderie of viral recipes was the next best thing. Despite the power of the internet, this is a big one we don’t see continuing.

Credit: Katrina Wittkamp/Getty Images

8. We’re relying more on frozen food.

We’ve long been fans of the freezer aisle here at Kitchn, tracking pretty much its every move. In August, it became so apparent that the freezer was more important than ever, so we declared 2020 “The Year of the Freezer.” According to the American Frozen Food Institute, “Frozen foods are a pandemic powerhouse ringing in $65.1 billion in retail sales in 2020, a 21 percent increase compared to [2019].”

The larger point at play here? The pandemic brought about an increased awareness of our food’s longevity. When buying foods we want to last until our next grocery outing, items that can live in the freezer (and pantry shelves!) are an obvious choice. Freezers became so integral to pandemic living that additional freezers (or as we like to call them, “bonus freezers“) were in high demand and nearly impossible to find. Armed with the uncertainty of the past year, we predict that people will continue to keep their freezers (and second freezers) stocked long into the future.

9. We’re treating ourselves to little luxuries.

According to IRI data, “Sales of premium and super-premium packaged goods grew by 1.7 percent at retailers year over year,” during the last half of 2020. While that might not seem like much, experts say it’s “a notable shift in the multibillion-dollar consumer packaged goods industry,” which features items like gourmet chocolate and specialty pasta sauce.

“That trend is consistent across households of all income levels,” said Krishnakumar Davey, president of strategic analytics at IRI, as reported by CNBC. His explanation? It’s normal to treat yourself when things can seem stressful and out of control.

Credit: Courtesy of Tera

10. We’re more conscious of where our food comes from.

When the early days of last spring pointed out the cracks in our national food supply chain, an obvious solution for many was to seek out local options, when grocery stores seemed more unreliable. One example? People seeking out local farms to source meat and produce amidst grocery store rationing. A more extreme example? A surge in people raising backyard chickens in response to a potential egg shortage. It doesn’t get much more local than your own backyard. In many ways, the pandemic has helped us better understand how the food we eat literally goes from farm to table.

How have your grocery shopping habits changed this last year?