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Grocery shoppers are faster and more focused during the pandemic

Kristin Schwab Jan 5, 2021
Heard on: Marketplace
Grocery shopping has become a get-in, get-out mission during COVID-19. Karen Ducey/Getty Images

Grocery shoppers are faster and more focused during the pandemic

Kristin Schwab Jan 5, 2021
Grocery shopping has become a get-in, get-out mission during COVID-19. Karen Ducey/Getty Images

Remember lingering in the produce section, picking up each avocado to find one that’s perfectly ripe? Or moseying down the chip aisle in pursuit of a new salty snack?

Those were the old days, before the pandemic changed shopping behavior.

“Plexiglass shields, black masks, social distancing — you know, being in a supermarket today is very, very scary,” said Phil Lempert, a food analyst who runs SupermarketGuru.com.

Lempert said that shopping has become a mission with less room for impulse buying. People get in, they get what they need, and they get out.

That’s led grocers and manufacturers to reduce offerings. The number of items grocery stores sell is down more than 7%, according to Nielsen. It’s a contrast to the “Before Times,” when grocery stores were overstuffed with seemingly every size and every flavor of every product.

Right now, the limited selection is good for grocery stores, which are trying to keep workers and customers safe and also don’t want to keep customers waiting in long lines outside.

“What they’ve discovered is less is more,” Lempert said.

The fast and efficient behavior is even more extreme with online ordering. The average grocery store has 40,000 products, said Doug Baker with FMI, the food industry association. But a website search bar lets shoppers focus only on what they want.

Burt Flickinger, managing director at Strategic Resource Group, said that when ordering online for delivery or curbside pickup, “people will buy the brands that he or she knows. They might not buy new brands.”

This trend is most prevalent in the middle of the store, where processed foods live. And that forces manufacturers to focus on their most popular products — for example, penne pasta instead of cavatelli.

According to Baker with FMI, those manufacturers “immediately started looking for slower-moving items that they could suspend.”

Baker said reducing options makes sense for the manufacturers trying to keep enough of their popular products on store shelves.

“If you imagine a machine that is producing multiple line extensions of a single item, every single time you change the flavor you have to shut it down, you have to change the packaging. That’s precious time.”

It won’t be back to basics forever. But long term, Baker said, the pandemic could convert more people into loyal shoppers of stores like ALDI or Trader Joe’s, which carry fewer items.

Some shoppers are now realizing that too many choices may not be a good thing.

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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