From snacks to bakery, boxed meals and alcohol, consumers are turning to their favorite indulgent foods for comfort as COVID-19 continues
In times of economic recession, consumers have historically turned to utilitarian and inexpensive shelf-stable and frozen foods. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic this behavior remains in place with one marked exception: indulgent and nostalgic comfort foods are also getting a sales boost, according to recent grocery sales and market reports.
Get KerryDigest articles delivered to your inbox
In this article, I share what I’m seeing in my role as Kerry’s Senior Marketing Specialist for Meat in North America along with insights from Nina Riggins, Senior Marketing Manager for Beverage, and Courtney Schumacher, Marketing Manager for categories including bakery and snacks.
Together, we examine trends and areas of opportunity across five categories in comfort food and indulgence as COVID-19 continues.
Nostalgia drives comfort food cravings
The International Monetary Fund is predicting that the world is about to enter its worst recession since the 1930s. Right now in the U.S., as of April 20, 2020, 95% of the population is under stay-at-home restrictions and more than 20 million people have filed for unemployment over the past five weeks.
The spread of COVID-19 is spurring insecurities about the future and feelings of fear and isolation as well as courage and unity. Through it all, one thing remains strong as ever: our emotional connection to food.
Comfort foods offer consumers something soothing, familiar and nostalgic. A majority of Americans report their favorite foods remind them of childhood, stirring up memories of a simpler, safer time.
Although comfort foods are not always healthy, 66% of people say they don’t feel guilty after indulging in their favorite comfort food, making clear even high calorie counts won’t get in the way of the comfort food trend during COVID-19.
Comfort foods have historically risen to the occasion
Recessions typically inspire consumers to purchase budget-friendly products with longer shelf lives and larger portions. Not coincidentally, some of the most iconic shelf-stable comfort foods were actually born in response to consumer needs during hard times and thus already meet the criteria.
During the Great Depression, for example, Kraft Foods introduced the boxed macaroni and cheese dinner, providing four portions for just 19 cents. In 1971, Hamburger Helper was released in response to a meat shortage; each box transformed a single pound of hamburger meat into dinner for a family of five.
While recessions differ by cause, severity and length, the common thread of comfort eating provides stability and nourishment to consumers.
Comforting prepared foods and meals
When thinking of characteristic comfort foods, many top-of-mind items have experienced sales growth between the end of January 2020 to the end of March. This is especially true in the prepared foods and meals category. During this period, dry pasta was up 199%, macaroni and cheese grew by 176%, lasagna and pizza sales increased by around 126% and ramen was up 117%, according to Nielsen.
Although consumer demand in the recent past mostly drove premium, better-for-you options and innovations for prepared foods and meals, the consumer mindset has shifted. During COVID-19, people are turning to familiar prepared food products and meals driven by value, paying less attention to label information.
Nostalgia in meat and plant-based alternatives
More consumers are cooking from scratch at home and many are also as stocking up for the prolonged periods of shelter in place. Meat is the main source of protein for a majority of American diets and the focus ingredient of countless dishes, so it’s no surprise that meat sales are thriving during this time. Chicken has especially seen a boost, and beef and pork sales are also well above average according to recent reports.
Sales of products made from both traditional and plant-based meat have also seen tremendous growth over the past couple of months. According to Nielsen data, the traditional meat category grew by 31%. Key products driving that growth were hams, hot dogs, dinner sausages, lunchmeat and bacon, all of which saw sales grow by more than 100%. During the same period, meat alternatives saw a 73% increase in sales, with strong growth from both the frozen and fresh cases.
Bakery offers a soothing break
Interest in baking has increased as consumers look for sweet ways to pass the time at home. Across the country, grocery stores are limiting flour and sugar purchases due to an influx in enthusiastic home bakers, and Nielsen reports sales of baking mixes are up 153% and baking staples (baking chips, baking soda, frosting, etc.) are up 126%. One of the biggest consumer trends in this space is making homemade bread, with bread making machine purchases skyrocketing by 800% according to NPD Group.
On shelves, bakery products such as coffee cake, blueberry muffins, filled doughnuts and cookies were all categorized in the top 10 growth items between January 20 and March 21, according to Nielsen AOD. These are commonly consumed around breakfast time; work from home consumers are stocking up on such indulgent items and pairing them with their morning coffee as something sweet to eat and bring comfort.
Feeding the snack-all-day trend
Apparently, being at home all day just makes people hungrier. Whether it’s to keep energy levels up or satisfy feelings of boredom or cravings, snack foods have had a bump in sales according to Nielsen: salty snack and ice cream sales are both up around 50% and cookies and crackers sales are 70% above average.
While many consumers enjoy the indulgent flavor profiles of snack and novelty items, as stay-home measures drag on, some people may start to forego the traditional nostalgic “junk food” snack options and instead reach for healthier snacks. With fitness centers closed and most meals and snacks being eaten at home, many consumers will naturally start to become more conscious of their intake and snacking decisions.
Alcohol is back
The mocktail movement appears to be on hold: bars are closed but consumers are still buying plenty of alcohol. According to Nielsen, spirits, wine and beer have all seen growth among the pandemic, with gains of 73%, 61% and 53%, respectively. Consumers appear to be returning to familiar drinks and brands they may have ventured away from pre-COVID-19.
While alcohol sales as a whole are up, it is important to look at the products that are growing and struggling. One industry taking a big hit due to the pandemic is beer’s craft brew industry. A majority of locations have had to close their tap rooms and strapped-for-cash consumers are choosing budget beer brands at stores, putting breweries in an unfortunate situation. In a survey updated by the Brewers Association on April 9th, just under half of breweries said they could only last between one and three months in current conditions while 13% said they could only stay afloat for another one to four weeks. Simply put, much of the craft beer industry appears to be in dire straits.
Although restaurants, in general, are also struggling during this new COVID-19 environment, regulation changes mean some restaurants and bars are offering alcoholic beverage options to complement their takeout menus, such as mobile bloody marys with all the fixings. Some foodservice locations are selling cocktail kits to go, whether it be a full-size bottle of liquor and enough premade mixer for several cocktails or individually-sized mixers with shot-sized bottles of liquor.
Not only are consumers stockpiling traditional alcoholic beverages at the grocery store and supporting local foodservice businesses through alcoholic beverage purchases, online alcohol sales were up 243% during the week ending March 21 compared to the same week in 2019. According to Food Dive, online sales of wine continues to dominate the market, contributing to 71% of total online beverage alcohol sales. Some of this is fueled by small producer innovation: although consumers can’t visit local wineries, they are still able to virtually connect such as through a virtual wine tasting wherein consumers purchase a tasting kit and live online experience from a winery.