Food Sourcing in America: New Consumer Food Sourcing Trends That Will Impact Communications in 2021

With the global pandemic upon us, the way that consumers procure food has shifted. According to The Hartman Group, 70% of consumers are concerned about grocery shopping, with many completely shifting their routines and purchase decisions as a result. Consumers are considering modes of procuring foods, methods of ordering, and fulfillment mechanisms that they may not have tried before.

We recently partnered with The Hartman Group and SVP Shelley Balanko to host a webinar on new food sourcing trends, taking a deeper dive into the ways in which consumer food shopping habits have shifted, what habits are expected to sustain post-COVID, and how communications and consumer engagement plans should shift as a result. Here are some of the highlights:

The move to online shopping has been particularly disruptive.

One-quarter of consumers report increased online shopping (with a corresponding drop in in-person shopping) since the pandemic began. Those who continue to shop in person are willing to swap out their usual stores for those offering more thorough safety policies (masks, sanitization, special hours for seniors, etc.) and promising smaller crowds.

  • The Communications Implication: Consider the channels you activate against. Taking an omnichannel approach has never been more critical—it may be time to consider a DTC strategy, like Coca-Cola’s recent Insider’s Club subscription box launch, e-commerce plans or integrations with food delivery platforms if you haven’t already. Pay even closer attention to where your consumers spend their time, where they are most receptive your message and the people and platforms that influence them most, and activate against those insights.

Shoppers are going to stores less, and planning ahead for visits more often.

The number of shoppers who make more than one in-person shopping trip per week has fallen by about 25% compared to 2017. On average, consumers are now making 1.7 in-person grocery shopping trips per week. And as those in-person trips become less frequent, or even eliminated from the shopping sequence, they are increasingly replaced by online grocery purchases, which now average almost once a week. Shoppers are making a more concerted effort to plan before they shop, with 49% currently making a list before heading to the grocery store.

  • The Communications Implication: Get on the grocery list. Less time in the grocery store means less opportunity for in-store discovery. With this shift, it’s never been more critical to get on the grocery list before the shopping trip starts—your brand should be top of mind when the list is being put together. This means cultivating even more discovery moments online—finding influencers, platforms, and diet and lifestyle communities (keto, gluten-free, paleo, whole 30, etc.) where your consumers are seeking recipe and product recommendations. Our client, Truvia, for instance, has successfully focused on penetrating the diabetic and keto communities with an ongoing influencer program, enabling the brand to show up in places consumers are actively seeking it out.

There’s a growing focus on social movements and considerations when shopping.

Although some aspects of sustainability are deprioritized for the moment, others—particularly those related to social welfare—have become top priority. A recognition of the risks that frontline workers—including food workers—are taking every day to get food on our tables has led to more awareness about employee welfare than ever before. Similarly, consumers are paying attention to how companies are addressing the pandemic hazard specifically, and whether they’re putting safeguards in place for shoppers and for employees. These shifts all represent a growing focus on social movements and considerations in shopping, and consumers are looking for companies to take a stance and match their actions to their values, which will be an ongoing priority that outlasts the pandemic.

  • The Communications Implication: Showcase Your Social Impact. Now more than ever, purpose cannot be an add-on. It has to be authentic, and serve as the lens in which decisions are made across the board—not just in marketing. Think of Ben & Jerry’s as the hallmark example. This is the moment to take a hard look at your purpose, social impact and sustainability strategies: what do you want to stand for? What issues are important to your brand and the communities you serve? How can you truly and authentically have an impact? Once these critical questions are answered, marketing can play a role in showcasing the impact to consumers through activations, packaging, new commitments, and content.

There’s been a shift back to basics.

The types of products that consumers are buying has also shifted due to COVID. Consumers now rely more heavily on less perishable product categories, including shelf-stable and frozen. This was particularly marked in the early weeks of the pandemic, but still maintained over throughout the second part of the year, with 30% of consumers relying more on shelf-stable and frozen products than they did before.

  • The Communications Implication: Lean into Loyal Customers. Now is the time, particularly for CPG brands, to reinforce brand love and drive continued loyalty with those long-term fans—with rising packaged good sales, there is opportunity to grow your business from them, in addition to gaining new customers. This is a moment for incentive programs and activations that bring consumers comfort and lean into brand nostalgia. For instance, this year Hershey’s, Honey Maid, and Jet-Puffed collaborated to celebrate the extra 10M S’mores made in 2020, by thanking consumers and putting money back into local communities, supporting small, independent restaurants in need. This is the year to show you care about the people and communities who buy your product.

Consumers are still dining out far less.

After the initial dive in consumer spending at restaurants in March, it started to rebound a bit in April, leveling out over the summer months.  But still, more than half of consumers said that they dine out less than before the pandemic, and 58% told us that they are not dining out at all. 

  • The Communications Implication: Bring Consumers the Experiences They Crave. Dining out is one of many fun experiences and little luxuries that consumers have given up in 2020. They are seeking new, safer experiences that will spark the same fun and excitement that they’d get from dining out, traveling, and socializing. Brands have an opportunity to drive newfound relevancy by giving them these types of experiences—for instance, Dunkin’ brands offered consumers a chance to win a tricked-out “Dunkin’ Refreshers RV” for a week to take an epic road trip. These kinds of activations can help spark new brand love.

These are just a few of the insights and implications gleaned from The Hartman Group’s research. As the pandemic landscape continues to shift, we’ll be on the lookout for if these trends stick, how they shift and form new procurement habits that will have long-term implications on driving consumer engagement and demand.