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The pandemic economy is changing the way Americans buy groceries

Kimberly Adams Aug 21, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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A man shops for groceries at a Seattle supermarket. The downturn has propelled millions of Americans into the federal nutrition assistance program. Karen Ducey/Getty Images
COVID-19

The pandemic economy is changing the way Americans buy groceries

Kimberly Adams Aug 21, 2020
A man shops for groceries at a Seattle supermarket. The downturn has propelled millions of Americans into the federal nutrition assistance program. Karen Ducey/Getty Images
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The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way we shop for food.

More of us are eating at home, and more of us are out of work and struggling to find ways to pay for necessities.

With extra unemployment benefits running out and food prices going up, the grocery stores of America, and shoppers themselves, are going to face some hard decisions.

Despite the economic downturn, many of us are spending more at the grocery store, stocking up in the panic-buying days or just buying more because we are eating at home more.

And thanks to expanded federal relief benefits, consumers have been able to pretty much keep buying the types of products they want.

But Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, said that’s unlikely to continue.

“In our numbers, 40% of people were telling us that they were very pessimistic about their finances,” Corlett said. “But many of them were being supported by a stimulus check or additional weekly unemployment payments, so it delayed the financial crisis.”

The downturn has propelled millions of Americans onto SNAP — the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Joan Driggs, a vice president at analytics firm IRI who follows the grocery industry, said typically, those benefits account for about $100 billion a year in grocery spending.

“But with all the increased unemployment, we’re looking at an additional, like, $20 billion increase in SNAP spend coming up,” she said.

And in addition to more people using the program, they are using it in different ways. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has expanded the number of states where people can use SNAP to buy groceries online, like at Amazon or Walmart, although delivery fees aren’t covered.

“The ability to shop with SNAP benefits online really brings that convenience to households that hadn’t had that before,” Driggs said.

According to the USDA, in March just 35,000 SNAP households were buying groceries online. In July, it was close to a million.

In the meantime, there’s additional strain on family budgets. Higher food prices, for one, said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

“They’re probably paying more for the same amount that they were trying to get before,” Waxman said. “The other thing that families have mentioned to me is that the cost of [personal protective equipment] has typically eaten into their food budget.”

Budgets waiting for more federal relief, if there’s ever a deal.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What are the details of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief plan?

The $1.9 trillion plan would aim to speed up the vaccine rollout and provide financial help to individuals, states and local governments and businesses. Called the “American Rescue Plan,” the legislative proposal would meet Biden’s goal of administering 100 million vaccines by the 100th day of his administration, while advancing his objective of reopening most schools by the spring. It would also include $1,400 checks for most Americans. Get the rest of the specifics here.

What kind of help can small businesses get right now?

A new round of Paycheck Protection Program loans recently became available for pandemic-ravaged businesses. These loans don’t have to be paid back if rules are met. Right now, loans are open for first-time applicants. And the application has to go through community banking organizations — no big banks, for now, at least. This rollout is designed to help business owners who couldn’t get a PPP loan before.

What does the hiring situation in the U.S. look like as we enter the new year?

New data on job openings and postings provide a glimpse of what to expect in the job market in the coming weeks and months. This time of year typically sees a spike in hiring and job-search activity, says Jill Chapman with Insperity, a recruiting services firm. But that kind of optimistic planning for the future isn’t really the vibe these days. Job postings have been lagging on the job search site Indeed. Listings were down about 11% in December compared to a year earlier.

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