How Covid changed Consumer Preferences
Temporarily empty grocery store shelves and some meat packing plant closures last year as a result of the pandemic focused greater attention on the U.S. food and farming sector. At a featured session during the AFBF Convention entitled “The Post-COVID Consumer: What’s Top of Mind for Them,” participants discussed coronavirus-forced food trends that they believe will stick, and possible new ones still to come.
For example, Roxi Beck, director of consumer engagement for the Center for Food Integrity (CFI), noted some so-called “dying” food brands experienced a resurgence in retail sales. She said CFI consumer research also found concerns about some food production practices.
“Progresso Soup and Hamburger Helper really hadn’t grown in many years, but now, as a result of a lot of home cooking, a lot of needing easy meal solutions, even baking categories like Pillsbury and Betty Crocker, they’ve seen exponential growth,” said Beck.
“There are some worries that come along with mass-produced food in particular … we heard concerns like mono-cropping and a lack of diversity.”
Beck cited CFI research that showed only 5% of U.S. consumers purchased groceries online a year ago. By March, when most of the United States went into lockdown, it jumped to 30%.
“We really pride ourselves on having one of the best in-store shopping experiences, so when overnight our consumers don’t want to come in our stores, that’s hard for us,” said Martha Hilton, vice president of produce and floral for Wegmans, an east coast grocery and restaurant chain. “We added a cart-to-curb option … that’s where we really saw the biggest growth.”
A representative of Cargill, one of the world’s largest food companies, said the pandemic forced it to rapidly change and become increasingly nimble. The result: a renewed focus on the value of all employees.
“We had food service customers who were not necessarily as busy, right,” said Jarrod Gillig, Cargill president of business operations and supply chain for Cargill North America. “We actually figured out how to engage them to supply more meat into the retail service.”
While agriculture had been deemed “essential” at the start of the pandemic and packing plants, Gillig noted his company quickly put in place things like rapid temperature screenings and barriers between employees.
“As essential workers, here they’re asked to come to work, but we also don’t want incentivize people coming to work sick,” said Gillig. “Making sure that they don’t get burdened if they were sick, Cargill enacted a 14-day pay where if they were out of work they were going to get a pay continuation.”
AFBF Vice President of Communications Terri Moore, who moderated the session, noted at its start that national organization farmer-leaders had met with food and agriculture industry representatives at a pre-convention roundtable. She said the group called for agriculture to strengthen consumer engagement.
“If we fail to pay attention to consumer preferences or to hear their concerns, we lose in the long-run,” said Moore. “Their message: if we want their trust, we must engage with them.”
Roxi Beck, left, with CFI, Martha Hilton of grocery and restaurant chain Wegmans, and Jarrod Gillig with Cargill participated in a featured session during the AFBF Convention entitled, “The post-COVID consumer: what’s top of mind for them.”