Consumers Resume On-the-Go Dining Habits: Report

The return to eating on-the-go and an increased interest in health and wellness are converging to create opportunities for specialty food retailers and manufacturers, according to a new report from Murphy Research.

Those trends could accelerate this fall as students return to school and more workers return to the office, Sarah Marion, who leads Murphy Research’s State of Our Health syndicated food and fitness tracker, told SFA News Daily. The tracker has been collecting food shopping data from more than 1,000 consumers monthly since 2018.

“Pretty soon those calendars are going to get filled up, and all of that space for making breakfast and making lunch is going to disappear,” she said.

Many consumers have enjoyed eating more traditional meals during the pandemic, however, Marion said, and they may look for better-for-you items they can eat on the go that are more satisfying than a nutrition bar or a protein shake, for example.

That could present opportunities for quick and portable meals that meet these demands, she said. In addition, as more consumers return to their workplaces at least part of the time, it could also drive traffic back to retail salad bars and other quick, prepared meal solutions that retailers offer, Marion said.

Consumer interest in organic and plant-based foods also remains strong, which Marion said reflects the rebound in consumer interest in health and wellness. Consumers began re-engaging more strongly with health in April and May of this year, the Murphy Research report found.

The percent of nutrition-engaged Americans — those who express interest in following a diet or eating more healthfully — who said that most of the products they purchase are organic increased from a low of 7 percent in March to 12 percent in April, and has remained at that level, she said.

Marion said consumer interest in health and nutrition has historically increased around back-to-school season, and this year it overlaps with workers gradually returning to offices and another wave of coronavirus infections.

“This would be a good time to feature organics as a better-for-you option and highlight the important role that a healthy diet full of whole foods, fruits, and vegetables plays in supporting the immune system,” she said.

Similarly, Marion also sees ongoing potential in plant-based alternatives, citing plant-based meal solutions in particular as a growing opportunity. Younger, nutrition-engaged consumers reported strong increases in following a vegan or vegetarian diet in the second quarter, the research found. Among nutrition-engaged millennials, 23 percent reported following a vegan or vegetarian diet, up from 15 percent in the first quarter. Eleven percent of Gen X respondents reported following a vegan or vegetarian diet in the second quarter, vs. 6 percent in the first quarter.

Overall, 11 percent of nutrition-engaged consumers reported following a vegan or vegetarian diet in the most recent survey, up from 8 percent in the first quarter.

“Limiting animal products has become a go-to eating approach when consumers want to ‘clean up’ their diets,” Marion said.

The Murphy Report research showed that consumers have slowly returned to dining out in restaurants, with men more likely to do so than women. At the same time, cooking at home has been decreasing, with 89 percent of consumers saying they did so at least weekly in the second quarter, compared with 92 percent in the first quarter.

“People are adding dining out a little bit more into their repertoire,” said Marion.

Another key takeaway from the report was the ongoing use of online shopping for groceries among younger consumers.

“A lot of younger consumers are still shopping online at the same level they were during the pandemic,” said Marion. “They are so used to doing things online anyway, and they haven’t been shopping for decades in person, compared with the Boomer shopper, so their habits are easier to change.”

While older consumers adopted online shopping during the pandemic, many are returning to shopping in-store, which is their preference, Marion explained.

Specialty food retailers should seek to understand the shopping preferences of the consumers in their specific markets, she said, and also take into account the fact that consumers may prefer shopping in-store for certain trips, such as when shopping for special occasions or when they have more time to browse.

“Understanding what kinds of trips your consumers are going online for, vs. shopping in-person will help you set up your store more efficiently for both of those types of trips,” she said.

Related: Restaurant Fund Replenishment Act Introduced; Convenience, Comfort, Plant-Forward Drive Specialty Frozen Sales.

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