By Danielle Maxwell 

We are living in unprecedented times. The coronavirus health crisis (COVID-19) has turned almost every aspect of our lives upside down. We never leave home without a mask; we greet each other with our elbows, and we keep a distance of two meters in public. Eating habits are no exception. The pandemic has had a significant impact on the way consumers buy, prepare, and taste food. 

The rise of home cooking  

As a result of lockdown, the closure of catering establishments has led to a resurgence of cooking as a household activity. Proof of this is that purchases of essential foods have skyrocketed. The sale of flour and semolina increased by 128.3% in April compared to the same month last year, eggs by 53.1% and sugar by 52%, according to a study by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.  

Several factors have contributed to this trend, such as the fear of going to restaurants or the boom in remote working. In fact, a report released in June by the Association of Manufacturers and Distributors (AECOC) showed that 67% of Spaniards have spent more time cooking at home and 57.5% intended to maintain this trend after lockdown. 

How has this affected the food distribution market? A recent study by Kantar confirms that the mass market sector, unlike others, has grown during the crisis: it has grown by 14.2% in the first nine months of the year compared to 2019, largely thanks to the boost of fresh products and packaged foods. 

Food shopping moves online 

COVID-19 has accelerated the food sector's penetration of the digital domain. Apart from the convenience of shopping at home, safety has become consumers’ main concern. A study carried out by the Spanish Centre of Sociological Research (CIS) shows that, during the state of emergency, 23.3% of Spaniards who were already shopping online increased their activity during that period and 20% claimed to have bought food products online. An international study by McKinsey reveals that, on average, the number of people buying food and household products online increased by 30% since the beginning of the pandemic.  

“The food retail world is probably one that has entered into digitalisation later and distributors have to move towards that model without cannibalising their own business,” says Elena Rodríguez, head of Open Innovation and Innovation Ecosystems at Opinno. However, the expert stresses that the large distributors “have been able to migrate to the digital” during the pandemic. 

One example is Dia, who in recent months have expanded online sales and have just launched an express delivery service, which allows customers to receive their delivery within an hour. Similarly, Carrefour increased its in-store collection points at the start of the pandemic to cope with the increased demand and even launched essential food kits to speed up delivery.  

Photo: During the pandemic, studies show that more cooking has taken place at home. Credit: Ekaterina Bolovtsova | Pexels

On the other hand, traditional distributors have joined Amazon, which has also gained ground during the crisis. Between April and June, the e-commerce giant increased its food shipments by more than 160%. Rodríguez considers technological players like Amazon to be “accelerators of transformation” rather than threats. In fact, distributors are already adopting some similar digital sales practices to them. El Corte Inglés has just launched a new flat-rate tariff subscription service for online purchases that includes food products.   

The question now is: will this new digital shopping behaviour continue in the long term? Rodríguez believes that this trend will continue, although perhaps not to the extent we have observed during this period: “There is a tendency to diversify what we consume in a physical shop and what we consume in an online shop”. In this sense, the expert points out that the purchase of non-perishable products is here to stay.  

Grocery trolleys are not the only ones that have migrated online this year. Many restaurants have also joined the digital wave through delivery services in order to maintain their business operations. A study by Fintonic indicates that during lockdown, 10% of Spaniards used delivery services such as Glovo, Just Eat and Uber. Furthermore, in July alone, the number of users of these services doubled compared to last year and the average expenditure increased by 49%. 

But will this trend continue after the pandemic? Rodríguez predicts that in large cities it will continue “to replace the experience of eating at home,” but it won’t replace that of restaurants, which will recover.  

Somewhere between savings and responsibility 

The economic difficulties resulting from the pandemic are making consumers more concerned about saving. 66.2% of Spaniards intend to maximise their budget and 68.4% will control their spending more in the new normal, according to a study by AECOC on consumer behaviour during the second wave of COVID-19. 

In contrast, the average cost of a shopping basket has increased by 2.8% during the pandemic, with increases of 4% in fresh produce, according to the Organisation of Consumers and Users (OCU). Despite this, there could be a “price war” in the mass consumer sector, especially now that distributors are competing in both the physical and online shop, according to Kantar's predictions.   

Besides looking for savings, consumers are giving more importance to local. During the state of emergency, local shopping grew: consumption in neighbourhood shops rose from 12.3% to 18.8%, according to the CIS. The impact of coronavirus could give a boost to local commerce. “As a result of this pandemic, combined with an economic crisis, we see local shops becoming the victims, and society will tend to support them,” says Rodríguez.   

Globally, 65% of consumers prefer to buy locally produced products, according to Kantar. Digitisation has enabled producers to find new ways of reaching the final consumer. One example is Correos Market, an e-commerce platform offering more than 3,500 food and craft products. Born before the crisis, it has now become a great ally for small producers to sell and distribute their products through Correos' extensive logistical network.   

Photo: The pandemic has changed the way in which consumers buy food, driving the adoption of online ordering and delivery services. Credit: Norma Mortenson |Pexels

As well as the increasing trend to buy locally, consumers are also looking to buy healthier food. An article published by the market research firm Ipsos predicts that “healthy living will be a priority for all consumers, who will increase their consumption of fresh and healthy food and show a greater interest in products that allow them to strengthen their immune system”. Along the same lines, a recent survey by the insurance company Aegon indicates that 7 out of 10 Spaniards now have a healthier diet due to cooking more at home, as well as replacing processed foods with fruit and vegetables.  

The pandemic has had a significant impact on the way customers buy, prepare and taste their dishes. Companies in the sector must step on the gas and adapt quickly to ensure digitalisation in order to meet their needs, succeed in the new normal and meet the gastronomic challenges of tomorrow. From land to table, via the virtual cart.