By: Rick Stein, Vice President, Fresh – Industry Relations, FMI

Picture70Two months ago, I had just returned from the SEPC Produce Conference, and the hottest topic from my perspective was what mattered most to shoppers when it came to fresh produce packaging per our 2020 Power of Produce report. That's not to say the dynamics of responsible packaging isn't a concern for shoppers at the moment. Still, it does feel like consumers' priorities, and their shopping habits have significantly shifted these past eight weeks.

The truth is the COVID-19 pandemic has affected all our mindsets and shopping habits. Our U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends COVID-19 Tracker details over a five-week period how Americans are coping with new realities presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Plan for More At-Home Meals

Our Trends COVID-19 Tracker found 76% of consumers have changed how they eat due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They are planning more meals in advance, trying new dishes, using perishable foods before they go bad, and minimizing waste. With restaurants and bars closed, shoppers are becoming culinary chefs in their own kitchens. IRI also reports that 59% of shoppers are now preparing nearly 100% of all meals at home. As consumers look to enhance their at-home eating experiences, there will be an opportunity for fresh foods. It's clear why meat drove growth when consumers turned to home eight weeks ago, but now we see all the fresh categories increasing in April. Fresh foods will be crucial in the weeks ahead and the grocery store is reemerging as the key place for consumers to buy fresh food. What's also exciting to see, according to IRI, is 89% of social media comments expressed cooking at home was an enjoyable experience. Now that folks are at home all day, they are enjoying preparing their meals. This will continue in my opinion.

Shoppers Using Food as Medicine

The coronavirus has put health top of mind for many consumers. I have even Google searched "fresh foods and immunity builders," and I'm not alone in this thought. Industry data shows spending has increased across all segments for fresh and center store. IRI reports 82% of U.S. consumers cite food and beverages as a key part of their self-care. For the health-minded, the ability to cook healthy meals at home will be key. Thirty-six percent of shoppers report healthier cooking habits, compared to shopping habits before COVID-19, according to Trends. With consumer habits more health-conscious, affordable fresh options cannot be overlooked by retailers in the coming months. Fresh foods will play an ever-increasing role in consumers ability to eat healthy.

What's Lies Ahead for Fresh Foods?

As the food industry looks ahead and the economy starts to stabilize, fresh foods has great growth opportunities. Shoppers' trips to the grocery store will shift as the "shelter in place" directives evolve – city-by-city and state-by-state. As consumers shop more, fresh foods and new local and seasonal produce will be there to catch their eyes and end up in their baskets. With concerns about eating out, cooking at home trends are expected to continue across all socioeconomic groups.

With the height of produce season bringing soft fruits to displays, fresh foods will be poised to play a key role with shoppers making healthy choices even after quarantine restrictions ease. Leveraging creative connections and total store solutions will allow grocers to create lifelong cooking habits focused on fresh foods.

When it comes to the unknown, hindsight is 20/20, and we've learned a lot these last two months. We solidified the resiliency of the food supply chain, we learned that COVID-19 is not a foodborne illness, and we further cemented the critical role grocers and their supply chain partners hold in their communities. As we go forward into a new reality, we will learn more about the pandemic’s impact on fresh foods in the current landscape, and I bet, fresh foods will regain momentum.

Learn more insights from FMI and IRI in our recent webinar on “Key Learnings in Fresh Foods in the Era of COVID-19.”

Key Learnings on Fresh Foods Webinar