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Study: Grocery spending remains high, but purchases shift

man grocery shopping

The “extreme buying” peak of the COVID-19 pandemic has fallen, but the average household grocery spend remains at elevated levels.

That’s according to a report by NCSolutions, which found that the average household grocery spend remains 23% higher than pre-pandemic levels. This shift—coupled with a return to a grocery basket mix reminiscent of pre-COVID-19 shopping patterns—indicates consumers have entered a new purchasing stage, which NCS termed “home-confined buying.”

In the new stage, which began on March 22 according to NCS, U.S consumers are adding more food and drinks to their carts but fewer paper products and household cleaning products due to supply issues. Vegetables, salty snacks and cheese are back on top for the week ending March 28. 

Indulgent comforts are also making their way back into baskets: Beer and wine purchases are higher than usual, ranking at number 9 and 11 respectively, compared to number 12 and 14 the year prior. Chocolate, which fell to number 18 during the extreme buying stage, climbed to number 12 during the week ending March 28 (likely boosted by the anticipation of Easter), and ice cream and cookies joined the ranks, 14 and 5 spots higher than two weeks prior respectively. 

"This pandemic is altering consumer purchasing behavior, although it's too early to tell if the change will be permanent," said Linda Dupree, CEO of NCS. "We see grocery shoppers cycling through five discrete buying stages as their lifestyles are upended. This evolution will inevitably raise important questions for advertisers around brand loyalty, especially when we eventually enter a 'new normal.'" 

According to NCS data, consumers entered the “preparedness buying” stage on Feb. 24. March 10 marked the shift to extreme buying, with American household grocery spend rising to 35% more than pre-COVID levels. 

During the extreme buying stage from March 11 to March 21, consumers stocked up on paper goods and household cleaning products. For the first time, items such as toilet paper and shelf-stable soap were ranked among the top 20 purchased items in the week ending March 14, 2020. 

Currently, in the home-confined buying stage, shoppers are filling their grocery baskets with higher quantities of frozen meals, cheese and lunchmeat than they did last year. Sales of frozen meals, for example, were uncharacteristically high between March 8 and March 28, compared to the same period last year, as consumers stocked their freezers with reserves. 

Cheese reached number 4 in the week ending March 21, up from number 6 during the same period last year, and continued to climb, after many U.S. schools shifted to remote learning programs and parents were left to fend for themselves for lunch sandwiches. At the same time, lunchmeat jumped to number 32—up from number 42 during the same period last year, and bread climbed from number 7 to number 5 between March 8 and 28.

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