Grocery stores have really experienced a year like no other.
Stay at home orders put a lot of pressure on the supply chain and the pandemic has formed some new buying habits in shoppers that might be around to stay.
Gary Huddleston has 45 years of experience in the grocery industry with Kroger and now the Texas Retailers Association as a grocery industry consultant. He commended grocery workers for enduring one of the most stressful years this industry has ever seen.
“They’ve done an incredible job under some very very tough conditions. Those conditions have improved dramatically over the last couple of months but early on in the pandemic, the essential worker was under an extreme amount of stress," he said.
He said one of the biggest changes grocery stores have experienced is a shift from picking up your items at a physical store to picking out everything online for pick up or delivery.
It’s a trend that really started taking off in 2018 but was fully accelerated this year during the pandemic.
“That was really a good thing in our business because that allowed us in the supermarkets to control customer traffic and also comply with the occupancy rates that many cities put into place,” Huddleston said. “That was helpful that the customer saw the importance for their own safety of ordering these items online.”
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He said other trends include quicker shopping times to get in and out of the store to limit exposure and consumers buying in bulk so they don't have to come back as soon.
“The order size has increased for a couple of reasons. For one, because they want to cut down on the frequency that they come to the store but secondly because restaurants are closed, they were purchasing more product at home than before. The schools weren’t open so they had to have more product for their children,” Huddleston said.
Those factors, coupled with demand on cooking from home since restaurants were closed for so long, made it harder for grocery stores to maintain product in the stores. Even companies like Frito Lay and General Mills were cutting down the number of items they made to get more products into the market faster.
"Some of those manufacturers cut down on the variety of what they had in order to focus on what sold the best. Today, with the exception of cleaning products, I think everything has caught up,” said Huddleston. “We’ve gotten much better now that we’ve learned a lot and people have gotten somewhat accustomed to the shopping habits.”
He added that you shouldn’t count on seeing those Clorox wipes fully stocked on the shelves any time soon. Cleaning products are continuing to have some levels of difficulty in stocking product due to the continuing demand from hospitals, schools, gyms and restaurants.
Other products in demand include coffee, ice cream, and other comfort foods.
But some people are also using this time to improve their diets.
"A lot of people have also used this time to get nutritious. Produce sales for fruits and vegetables did extremely well and still are during the COVID-19 season,” said Huddleston.
Because of these buying trends, he said some companies are shifting their focus on certain new products or flavors since buyers are feeling a bit more impulsive.
"It's also giving customers a chance to try we believe new products because they are at home and they are not in the same routine all the time and purchasing the same items all the time,” he said. "I think that’s the beauty of brick and mortar, looking at the new products and the customer wanting to try something new."
So what trends will stay even after the pandemic?
Huddleston said online shopping, of course. But another is cashless transactions, with stores focusing more on card payments, Apple or Google pay or purchases through an app like Target.
Grocery stores are trying to take every piece of paper out of the system, including paper coupons. Those are also shifting to either a loyalty card or a smartphone.
However, Huddleston believes brick and mortar stores will always be relevant, no matter the trends that come and go.
"I think the customer will always still want to come to a brick and mortar store to look at the seafood, the salmon steak or the rib-eye, and fresh fruits and vegetables before they purchase it," he said.