As a kid, I used to loathe trips to the grocery store with my mother. They were a time trap, the proverbial black hole of boring where nothing fun entered and time stood still indefinitely in my pre-adolescent mind. To me there was no telling how long we had been there when we left, did I have a birthday while we were there, or did we just buy cake mix?. Although my mother carried a shopping list neatly written and meticulously prepared, we always seemed lost in the vast expanse of the store. Walking the length of every curated aisle looking for list items, my mother looked devout as her head darted between her list and the shelves as if praying to the grocery Gods for guidance.
While I take a poetic license describing a childhood memory, this experience is one that many can relate too. Grocery shopping is a leisure activity for most, a form of window shopping if you will. Led by salivary glands we bookmark a bag of Oreos in aisle five and tortellini in aisle three, so we can make a second pass later to see if our appetite is stronger than our will. In an age pre-pandemic this behavior was normal, it was care-free. In fact, shoppers spent an average of 41 minutes per trip and made an average of 1.5 trips per week (Credit Donkey). If you are like me you are doing the math in your head right now, in total this adds up to more than 50 hours a year shopping in grocery stores. That is 2 whole days we spend annually strolling the long corridors of our local grocers. Before we start making excuses and blaming it on the checkout lines, let me fill you in, the average wait time at checkout is between 3 and 7 minutes depending on the number of cashiers, meaning we spend the majority of the time window shopping.
In recent months our world has been turned upside down, many things that seemed normal have been replaced with their polar opposite. My trips to the grocery store are no longer flights of leisure and indulgent fantasy picking out which flavor of Ben and Jerry’s to add to my waistline. They have become more planned, more strategic with speed being at the forefront of my effort. My eyes no longer linger on the animated smiles of Tony the Tiger or Snap Crackle and Pop, instead they scan the aisles for patrons. I look down each aisle to assess the safety of retrieving a can of Sour Cream and Onion Pringles, lost is the internal struggle to decide whether Doritos is a better choice. I make a quick but professional show of power walking to the Pringles, grab my can and exit the aisle while wearing mental horse blinders to pass through the chip section.
Nowhere is this behavior change more evident than in the manners of my fellow shoppers. New York City is not known for its pedestrian charm, it is a City of ambition, a City of dreamers and competitors working and pushing to get a head, a City of “Me First” and seize the day. Yesterday I reached the top of an aisle at the same time as a fellow shopper and something strange happened, something wholly unfamiliar. We both urged the other to enter first, willing to miss our opportunity to grab the last bottle of milk, the courtesy was unnerving, neither of us wished any contact through the normal jockeying that was commonplace in New York.
My experience may be anecdotal, but there is data to support the changes we are seeing and experiencing. Shoppers are making fewer trips to the grocery store. In fact, according to a recent study, shoppers are making 52% fewer trips to the grocery store in the face of the COVID pandemic (Acosta News). This is a significant drop in time spent at a grocery store. Shoppers are beginning to see trips to the grocery store as a strategic activity opting for less window shopping and more precise and purpose oriented visits. In conjunction with a drop in visit frequency we are seeing an increase in average spend per visit. Shoppers are spending an average of 20% more per visit compared to pre-pandemic numbers (Supermarket News).
Now a 20% increase in per visit spend does not appear proportionate to a 52% drop in the number of visits. It almost appears that people are just simply eating less, that is until we take a deeper look into what shoppers are purchasing. In the time of pandemic, shoppers are indeed giving up window shopping in exchange for strategy and planning. When we look at the 20% increase in spend we see that the items being purchased are purpose driven. They are bought for longevity to reduce the number of trips to the store. Shoppers are purchasing more shelf-stable products that last. More specifically, we are seeing upticks in the purchase of canned Meat which is up 188%, Canned Tuna is up 142% and canned soups are up 127% (Time).
As shoppers continue to evolve their shopping habits in the face of COVID-19, it is clear that window shopping will be a pleasant memory, perhaps an experience we recount to grandchildren. The advancement in technology in the market from online shopping to digital coupons provides the vehicle for sustainable and efficient behavior change in the industry. Technology will facilitate and accelerate the death of the window shopper.
1. Credit Donkey, Rebecca Lake, May 2019 https://www.creditdonkey.com/grocery-shopping-statistics.html
3. Supermarket News, Russel Redman, April 2020 https://www.supermarketnews.com/center-store/how-coronavirus-crisis-changing-grocery-shopping
5. Time, Tara Law, March 2020 https://time.com/5810811/coronavirus-shopping-data/
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