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Bigger hauls, fewer choices: How the pandemic has changed our grocery shopping habits forever

A permanent shift toward online shopping means less innovation, fewer new brands and, for some people who lack choices, reinforcement of unhealthy eating patterns

Jen Valencia works for Instacart, shopping at a Wegmans market in Woodbridge, N.J. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the trend toward online grocery shopping. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Contactless shopping and the elimination of free samples. Less browsing and “product discovery” and more focus on the expediency of repurchasing. These are ways the novel coronavirus has changed how Americans buy groceries. The pandemic has altered what products people purchase, when and where, who is buying them, and how much time is devoted to the endeavor.

Americans are spending more, yet increasingly they are being offered fewer choices, both online and in person, slowing a years-long trend toward innovations that put “good for you” and “environmentally friendly” spins on established and much-loved products.

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The winnowing — what one expert calls a “Sovietish” reduction of choice — is also solidifying eating patterns, for good or for ill. With customers’ selections reinforced by online advertising, repeat ordering and other algorithms, the food system is becoming bifurcated as consumers who have expressed enthusiasm for healthful or artisanal foods are offered more of the same, while those with a penchant for highly processed comfort foods are inundated with opportunities to restock.

Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and dean of Tufts University’s nutrition science school, says the pandemic has heightened disparities in shopping patterns and health between high- and low-income Americans.

“There are two different reactions to covid — a small number who are getting health conscious and reacquainting themselves with real food, and a larger group that is going with comfort food that is cheap and shelf-stable,” he says.

The great eating divide is an unexpected result of changes set in motion by the shutdown of restaurants and the retreat to home kitchens, which have led consumers to spend significantly more money on groceries than they did last year. The monthly grocery bill for the average American household spiked to $525 in March, up 30 percent over March 2019, according to census data, as dollars pivoted from restaurant meals to home and people snapped up items in bulk. By July it had settled to about $455 a month, still up 10 percent over the same month last year.

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Based on research conducted for the food industry trade group FMI by an analytics firm, FMI Senior Vice President Mark Baum says many consumers are increasing the amount of money spent per trip and simultaneously decreasing the amount of time spent in the store. Shoppers are more likely to have a list of critical tried-and-true items and are less inclined to browse and let serendipity guide them to something new.

He says more men are claiming to be the primary shopper during the pandemic, and “they do buy different things and buy differently.” Men, Baum says, tend to favor efficiency: shopping club stores for bulk purchases, convenience stores and online. They report making fewer, larger, quicker trips for a narrower range of items.

Grocery stores, marking these behavioral changes, have chosen to focus more on restocking their top-selling 1,000 items — things like Barilla pasta, Tide and Oreos.

Frito-Lay said that, when shutdown and stay-at-home orders started going into effect in March, it cut its number of unique bar codes (called stock-keeping units, or SKUs) to get more products into the market faster. “We reduced about 21 percent of our SKUs to deliver the volume of our most in-demand products, ensuring availability everywhere for consumers,” said Mike Del Pozzo, senior vice president of sales for Frito-Lay North America. The company later restored most of its paused product bar codes, but not all.

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The decrease in new offerings marks a historic change in American manufacturing patterns, after an explosive expansion in the number of grocery items in the decades after World War II.

Michael Ruhlman, in his book “Grocery,” writes that the number of items offered in U.S. supermarkets went from 9,000 in 1975 to a staggering 40,000 to 50,000 by the beginning of 2020. The pandemic has not only halted that growth, it’s reversed it.

Food manufacturers are focused on producing more of the top-selling varieties of a particular product, pushing off the launch of different flavors or spinoffs until sample stations can return. Giants like General Mills, Conagra, Kellogg’s and Campbell’s, seeing a rise in sales of their dominant brands, are making more of those at the expense of new products.

Meanwhile, budget-minded shoppers have embraced more-affordable private-label store brands, squeezing out shelf space for independent and rookie brands.

The contractions are most visible in the beverage aisle, specifically in a reduction in the array of sugar-sweetened and sugar-free sodas on the shelves, according to Signals Analytics chief marketing officer Frances Zelazny.

On-the-go snacks like granola bars are also being squeezed out as working from home is normalized.

And while Americans’ enthusiasm for sustainability has waned, reducing sales of items such as personal-hygiene products or cooking oils that make environmental claims, interest in products touting immune-health benefits such as probiotic yogurts and garlicky foods has increased, Zelazny says.

This “narrower range” is not just a brick-and-mortar constriction. As the pandemic accelerates the shift to online shopping, the number of packaged food products available to purchase on the Internet fell 21 percent globally from January to May, according to Euromonitor International, a London-based market research company. It found that nine out of the 10 biggest countries by retail sales saw a drop in the number of unique SKUs available online.

The uptick in online shopping is expected to further reduce choices. “Four years ago, online shopping was embryonic,” Baum says. “We projected then there would be $100 billion in online sales by 2025, and we’ve revised it twice since then. In January we revised the number to $143 billion, and that was pre-covid, so obviously we will have to revise that projection again.”

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Max Pedro, co-founder of Takeoff Technologies, which develops hyperlocal robot automation for grocers, says online shopping may “stifle innovation,” with boxed, canned and other shelf-stable items, typically stocked in the center aisles of grocery stores, narrowed to fewer choices — or even disappearing as they move from stores to e-commerce.

“The boring center aisles may go virtual so that the more exciting fruits, vegetables, meat and seafoods will be in person,” he predicts. “No one gets excited about roaming the supermarket for paper towels.”

Baum says that the purchasing of some items — coffee, water, pet food — will pivot to auto-replenishment or online subscriptions, and that there has been “a tremendous slowdown of new product introductions” in stores.

“Esoteric things,” niche items for which retailers might have a hard time justifying shelf space, can have a much more avid audience online, says Daniel Lubetzky, founder of snack company Kind.

Franklin Isacson, founding partner of Coefficient Capital, a consumer package goods venture capital firm, likens online shopping to spearfishing, while in-store shopping is more akin to net fishing.

“If you go stand in the salty-snack aisle of Kroger, there is probably a sampling station. You pick up a bag, read the nutritional panel,” he says. “Whereas on Amazon, you’re typing in ‘Heinz ketchup.’ You’re not going to discover Sir Kensington. People that buy groceries online tend to buy the brands that they know, the brands that have highest unprompted awareness. Seventy-five percent of repeat online shoppers start shopping in their previous basket, so if you’re a new brand it’s hard.”

In other words, new products and start-up food businesses may be in trouble. And with many trial-balloon opportunities nixed during the pandemic — trade shows like the Fancy Food Show or the Natural Products Expo West have been canceled, along with sports and music events — there are fewer forums for debuting a product and persuading retailers to buy in.

That risks scuttling the trend over the past decade of better-for-you products in almost every food category, Isacson says.

“It would have been a perfectly viable business idea to pick an aisle and do an ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ or ‘sustainable’ version of anything,” he says. “That was companies’ investment theory: Find the natural alternative.”

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What consumers buy has always been manipulated by food brands via trade promotions — things like coupons and “buy one get one” (BOGO) offers — as well as “slotting fees” that a manufacturer pays a supermarket to get its products on the shelves. Category leaders often hold sway over where everything is placed in a grocery aisle, helping to draft the “planogram,” or store map.

Online purchasing is no different.

“Platforms like Instacart are now allowing you to advertise,” Isacson says. “If you type in ‘steak,’ a chimichurri sauce comes up. Most brands pay anywhere between 5 and 20 percent for trade spends like BOGOs and discounts, and online retailers want that money as well. It’s being at the top of the search, or a banner ad.”

And in the same way Netflix uses algorithms to determine a person’s taste in movies, in a digital economy it’s much easier to track consumers’ predilections based on past behavior, says Pedro. While in-person grocery shopping, especially cash transactions, is largely anonymous, online retailers can “for the first time track what people are really into. The more attuned to what that shopper needs, the better retailer you’re going to be,” Pedro says.

“Last century that was paying for the end cap; now it’s who does it show first, and it’s even worse on a phone where you can see just a handful of products. It does perpetuate existing habits, for the good or bad,” he says.

If purchasing habits are healthful and wholesome, a consumer will be targeted with products that fit that pattern.

If purchases lean in the other direction, so will targeted marketing. And that could have dire consequences for low-income Americans who already suffer disproportionately from lifestyle-related diseases linked to poor diet.

Lower-income people have always had disproportionate access to junk food and are frequently bombarded with ads for inexpensive, ultra-processed and fast foods, says Nancy Roman, president of the Partnership for a Healthier America.

A 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that recipients of federal SNAP benefits, commonly known as food stamps, spend a higher percentage of their total grocery dollars on sweetened beverages, packaged desserts, salty snacks and prepared foods, and a lower percentage on fresh fruits and vegetables, than other Americans do.

SNAP is one pandemic-era driver of online sales, with as many as 7 million Americans newly signing up for benefits and the USDA expanding a pilot program for online shopping through SNAP debit cards to 44 states and D.C. Pandemic EBT, a similar online-purchasing debit card program for students who would have received free and reduced-price school meals, has been approved for 50 states, D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands. For families who qualify for both, benefits are housed on the same card.

Roman says while it’s a good thing that people can use SNAP benefits online, “when you mix digital marketing with digital access, you get an intensification of everyone being ‘optimized,’ which reinforces and accelerates the trend that was already underway.”

For Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, artificial intelligence and machine learning, operating seamlessly and efficiently, represent a surrender of power to food manufacturers that are increasingly adept at manipulating consumers.

“They know what you want before you even know,” he says.

“A system is being unleashed to take advantage of those who have fewer choices. Lower-income neighborhoods are already targeted, and with e-commerce they will receive a flood of unhealthy products,” Chester says. “No one is looking behind the digital curtain to see how it affects those most at risk.”