KANSAS CITY — At the American Society of Baking (ASB)’s virtual BakingTech conference, being held Feb. 16-18, Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice president and practice leader and client insights, IRI, analyzed consumer trends since the coronavirus (COVID-19) struck. She also looked at what bakers should be focusing on to increase sales moving forward.

IRI’s research found that in the month of March 2020, there was a 24% increase in the revenues for food delivery, which included different options throughout the day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Overall, 81% of meals were made at home. Ms. Lyons Wyatt noted this created new demand pockets in several categories, including lifestyle and consumption, channel shifting, valuable cohorts, economic bifurcation, shopping behavioral shifts, and special occasions.

Despite growth in e-commerce, not all online buying experiences were positive, with IRI data showing that 67% of people not being able to find what they wanted online. Ms. Lyons Wyatt said this is because searches are not aligning with the functional benefits of food.

Diet-specific searches in support of diabetes, obesity and hypertension grew upwards of 30%, yet snack categories such as “vegan” go unclaimed by qualifying brands 76% of the time, according to IRI. These opportunities in search optimization are what Ms. Lyons Wyatt referred to as “low hanging fruit.”

Ms. Lyons Wyatt offered four potential solutions to the search issue.

“When consumers are shopping online, they’re more loyal,” she said.

That’s why she suggested online offerings as a way to capture consumers’ attention. Healthy and affordable meal solutions can support specific health issues. Pack-size innovation is a necessity while consumers adjust to shopping during the pandemic, and high-quality private label brands can show an enhanced commitment to shoppers.

In 2019, IRI reported perimeter baking outpaced center store bakery. During the pandemic, however, consumer attention shifted toward the center store, which saw a 24.5% increase in sales by the end of November 2020. These sales in bakery items were seen mostly in dollar sales, rather than in units, for two reasons.

“One was the fact that you had less promotion so therefore higher prices throughout a good portion of the year,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said. “The second is, we had a segment of consumers that were ‘premium-tizing,’ buying more premium items, which have a higher dollar ring. Both contributed to more dollars and couldn’t overcome the losses of units for the unit growth.”

In fact, consumers in all economic situations appeared to follow a trend of buying premium over the course of the pandemic. Using IRI’s Econolink, which is capable of differentiating consumers from an economic standpoint, Ms. Lyons Wyatt pointed out that financially struggling households were likely to seek premium items to replicate the restaurant feeling at home when they were unable to go out.

Consumers also are making fewer store trips with bigger baskets. As a result, she said bakers need to maximize assortments to meet the shifting behaviors and needs of consumers by customizing in-store experience and bringing the bakery experience online as much as possible.

Looking forward, Ms. Lyons Wyatt said, consumer interest in sustainability marketing has huge potential growth. During COVID-19, IRI data showed that products that touted recyclability saw a 26% sales growth, those that marketed ethicality grew 37%, and those that focused on humane experienced a 63% sales jump.

Ms. Lyons Wyatt predicted that sales moving forward will be driven by e-commerce adoption, restaurant partnership, assortment fine-tuning, functionality of packaging, sustainability practices and a deepening engagement with new and at-risk consumers.