While consumers’ preferences for fresh remains strong, most of the oft-promoted perimeter of the supermarket took a major hit when the coronavirus (COVID-19) dramatically impacted the way consumers shop for food.

That was especially true in the in-store bakery where bulk bins remained empty for food safety reasons.

“What’s happened this year is an anomaly that we have never seen before,” said Todd Hale, principal, Todd Hale LLC. “I wonder, when we think about the fresh departments and the whole notion of a self-service section where you can reach in and grab a donut or a bagel, what’s going to happen to that business going forward? Are we going to allow that to return?”

While shoppers are coming back, the perimeter hasn’t rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, especially with sweet goods and desserts because special occasions like birthdays just include immediate families or drive-by celebrations from relatives and friends.


“What is also interesting on the in-store bakery front in general is that the indulgent items — cakes, cookies and pastries — are all trending down,” said Angela Bozo, education director for the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association.

“Yes, this is partly because of a lack of open self-service cases, but it is also at least partly indicative of what people are doing for themselves, which is baking at home,” she added. “I am sure that time will be a factor post-COVID, but there are preferences being changed and possibly family traditions being formed, so this could go in many directions.”

Ms. Bozo added that so much of IDDBA’s 2020 trend reporting centered on customer preference, brand loyalty and the rise of specific diets, which were put on the backburner as consumers adjusted to inconsistent stocks on shelves as well as pressure to reduce shopping trips.

“With the rise of abundance in the fresh departments, there were consumer groups shopping much more frequently — somewhat mitigating meal planning,” Ms. Bozo explained.

“We all love to quote that the millennial shopper doesn’t know what they are going to eat for dinner until one hour before consumption and then ‘stock-up’ shops,” she noted. “This is a trend worth watching as shopping is such a force of habit, and now all shopping has been somewhat disrupted. I don’t believe that we know yet how that will shake out. I imagine that consumers are going to find ways to hybridize what they did pre-COVID and what they found worked for them during COVID.”

[Related reading: COVID-19 shifting consumer perceptions of health and wellness]

Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice president and practice leader for IRI, also pointed out that 2020 was set to be another year for foodservice to outpace retail.

“With restaurant closures and the looming ‘great lockdown recession,’ that will not occur this year,” she said.

In the “food fight” between at-home and away-from-home eating, as Mr. Hale put it, the latter had been the clear victor in recent years. For commercial bakers and anyone supplying the food industry, the new “Game of Homes” has seriously chosen new winners and losers. While this war has serious consequences, it’s far from over.

“The food fight between food retailers and restaurants is going to turn into a war of dominance and survival,” Mr. Hale predicted. “For those of you supplying the foodservice arena, I’m sure many of you are concerned about what’s going to happen.”

Family Eating Breakfast

And, Ms. Lyons Wyatt said, Americans are discovering their “inner chef.”

IRI’s weekly COVID-19 survey for the week of April 12 found 69% of consumers are preparing more meals now, while 37% are creating more meals from scratch vs. before the pandemic. Of those, 49% stated they will continue making meals from scratch.

Moreover, 31% of consumers are eating more treats this week vs. the prior week to reduce stress or bring some joy into their day.

“Based on what I have seen posted on social media, other things consumers have learned include not to take for granted the luxury of eating out of the home,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt observed. “Consumers have missed the opportunity to meet friends for a meal or happy hour. Some have missed the convenience of eating out versus cooking at home.”

[Related reading: Consumers seek indulgent snacks during COVID-19]

And, for perhaps for the first time in years, the nuclear family connected in person. Families who not long ago called each other “snowflakes” and “OK Boomers” are now breaking bread together. Or people who never spent any time with their families after years on the go, now are. They’re reliving what dinner used to be all about or experiencing it for the first time.

“We’re rediscovering the family,” said Steffen Weck, president, Food Business Consulting. “We’ve had the best conversations with our 11- and 14-year-olds around the dinner table. We actually put the phones down and now talk about the coronavirus and how the schools may change for them.”

It may be something that Gen Z will someday tell their kids: how they were once forced to sit around and have dinner with their family 30 years ago. Maybe that’s not all that bad, especially in moderation.

“As hard as it is, it’s actually how we were raised,” said Christine Cochran, executive director, Grain Foods Foundation. “My family rarely ate out. In many ways, we’re just rewinding the clock back to years ago, and it’s not that far back in time.”

So, is it the best of times or the worst of times? Only time will tell, not Dickens. One thing is for sure. Many more myths will emerge as the result of this pandemic, and some will be busted.

This article is an excerpt from the June 2020 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on consumer mythbusting, click here.