Grocery shopping during COVID-19: How are consumer preferences changing?

Paul Tiedt | Apr 14, 2020 Paul Tiedt 04/14/20

The current reality of food shopping has shifted, and grocery stores have stepped up to make item availability, health, and safety a priority for customers. With new information being released every day, consumer preferences are changing by region. This blog focuses on three trends we’ve identified in grocery shopper behavior and a few tips to help stores remain agile.


Trend #1: Grocery pickup orders have increased since the pandemic

In recent years, the evolution of e-commerce has led brands to invest in services that make the shopping experience easier for customers. The grocery industry is no stranger to this movement—many stores rolled out grocery pickup and delivery either internally or through an external partner like Instacart. While shoppers have been slow to take advantage of these services, COVID-19 has piqued their interest.  

Our data found that since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, grocery curbside pickup usage saw a 90% increase, with 19% of respondents using the service since learning about coronavirus and social distancing precautions.

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With almost double the amount of shoppers partaking in curbside pickup, how can brands ensure they’re delivering a sanitary and stress-free experience?

  • Communicate instructions: With so many new curbside pickup shoppers, there might be a bit of confusion surrounding the process. By communicating the instructions and expectations clearly on the ordering portal and in confirmation emails, you can avoid forcing customers to make an unnecessary trip into the store for direction.
  • Wear personal protective equipment (PPE): For customer-facing employees, this is especially important. Shoppers will feel much safer receiving their order from someone wearing gloves and a face mask.
  • Avoid a direct hand-off: Consumer Reports is encouraging shoppers to open their own doors or trunks to have the grocery store workers place orders directly into the car. This negates any additional contact between employees and customers or their cars.

Coronavirus has brought on a new set of circumstances for everyone. Grocers can embrace the traction that curbside pickup is getting—and by enhancing the process now, customers will be more apt to return to it in the future.


Trend #2: Pickup preferences vary across U.S. regions

As you know from last week’s blog covering the emerging trends of the restaurant industry, consumer preferences vary based on location across the U.S. The same goes for grocery stores—with some regions using curbside grocery pickup at much higher rates than others.

The three regions in the U.S. that make up the highest curbside delivery usage in recent weeks are West South Central, East South Central and South Atlantic. From North Carolina to Florida to Texas and the states in between, what’s driving curbside grocery shopping to be greater in these areas?

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When compared to the map of restaurant preferences we saw last week, the areas of the country that prefer meal delivery almost perfectly reflect those that are less likely to get their groceries via curbside pickup. We can assume that during the pandemic, some consumers are more willing to venture out for the food they need, while others are willing to pay a little bit extra for the comfort and convenience of delivery—whether it’s from a restaurant or their local grocery store.

We’ve also learned from text analytics that more than half of grocery customer comments mentioning “COVID” have negative sentiment. People are concerned about their interactions with staff amid social distancing requirements—thus driving them to switch to pickup or delivery options for a contactless experience.

No matter how shoppers are getting their groceries, their health and safety should be top-of-mind for brands. If your region isn’t getting a huge influx of curbside pickup now, be prepared and have a plan in place to meet an impending surge.  


Trend #3: Key drivers of Overall Satisfaction have shifted

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Cleanliness was at the bottom of the list of priorities for shoppers while Speed of Checkout fell right in the middle. In the week after March 11, grocery traffic was higher than usual as panic-shopping increased trip frequency. During this rush, Cleanliness jumped ahead of Speed of Checkout, Availability of Assistance, and Ease of Moving Through Store. This isn’t surprising, given the influx of new information regarding health and safety precautions—shoppers were more concerned about sanitation than getting in and out quickly.

But this changed again starting March 22—almost two weeks after the outbreak was declared a pandemic. Store traffic returned to normal, and even dipped below normal in some areas. During this time frame, Speed of Checkout became top-of-mind and jumped ahead of where it was before the pandemic, and Cleanliness returned to the near-bottom of the list. The checkout process has slowed down for many, due to enhanced sanitization practices like social distancing, wearing gloves, and discontinuing the use of personal reusable bags. Also, with more staff focusing on the cleanliness of the store and product availability, there are fewer employees manning the checkout lines.

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U.K. grocery brands also identified an uptick in demand for Cleanliness, as well as Friendliness of Team. To ensure that trips to the grocery store feel welcoming, safe, and clean, employees are reinforcing the importance of delivering excellent customer experiences—even as preferences shift.

One major takeaway from the outbreak has been that consumer preferences can change in an instant—and then back again before you know it. Real-time feedback is the best way for brands to understand customer needs, pivot operational strategies, and better align with current priorities.


Be one step ahead of the customer

If anything is certain right now, it’s that change comes quickly. Circumstances, trends, and preferences can all shift in the coming days or weeks. Leverage your experience management (XM) program for insight into what your customers need from you now.

We plan to update you soon with a second wave of research. Until then, we’ve compiled six experience management best practices for grocery to adopt amid COVID-19.


Paul Tiedt | SVP, Research

Customer Experience Update