Historically, there has been a rhythm to eating patterns in America; somewhat predictable habits formed by daily routines and needs. The early stages of the pandemic disrupted this rhythm, and just as food patterns returned to pre-pandemic normality, food inflation picked them up again, reports The NPD Group* in its 2022 edition of Eating Patterns in America.
“The pace of change in the eating behaviors of American consumers continues at a breakneck pace,” says David Portalatin, NPD food industry consultant and author of Eating Patterns in America. “Anyone who hopes to return to normal must understand that there is no normal, only a continuous evolution as we respond to new realities.”
Portalatin points to six macro themes that currently shape the new realities of food and beverage consumption behaviors: economic transition, inflation, income bifurcation, sticky behaviors, total well-being and the return to convention.
Economic transition: Consumer spending in 2020 and 2021 experienced stimulus-stimulated growth that extended into the first quarter of 2022. But, spending spree ended in the second quarter when stimulus money dried up, and inflation and economic uncertainty took over. The positive and negative interruptions of recent years may mean that the economic metrics from year to year are not as direct as they usually are in explaining the health of the consumer.
Inflation: Consumers are unlikely to reduce consumption of food and beverages in the face of inflationary pressure. But, they will find ways to manage and allocate their food money. While inflation is more moderate for food away from home than food at home, the typical restaurant meal costs 3.4 times more than food at home from retail. To offset rising food costs, consumers are looking for deals when shopping, eating more meals at home, and cutting back on restaurant visits.
Income divide: one of the critical issues currently shaping the food and beverage landscape is the difference in behaviors between income groups. The trends of higher and lower income consumers are very divergent. In the food and beverage industry, the bifurcation of income has profound implications for the total share of stomach trends, retailer and restaurant selection, dealing and promotions, and and brands versus private labels.
Sticky behaviors: Many eating behaviors adopted during the pandemic reflect a rapid acceleration of behaviors established long before the pandemic, such as consumers eating most meals at home. Food and beverage behaviors may continue to “normalize,” but the consumer landscape has been transformed as consumers create new capabilities and restaurant operators expand capabilities to serve a more consumer-centric house
Total well-being: Due to the pandemic, consumers are finding a balance between foods that contribute to physical well-being and those that serve more emotional needs. I am increasingly attuned to the functional attributes of various foods and beverages that can contribute to both sides of this equation.
Back to the Convenience: Back to school and work create time pressures for home cooks and food service customers. And while the centrality of the house remains more prevalent, the return of mobility reintroduces the need for speed and convenience. For some occasions, this means a trip to a quick service restaurant, but for others, we want to keep our new skill at home, just with some shortcuts or time-saving techniques.
“American food patterns are changing to adjust to the new realities, and food producers, grocery operators and retailers need to adjust their offerings and services accordingly,” says Portalatin. “Although the only constant is change, there is one constant to count on, the US consumer still needs to eat, and so it’s a matter of understanding what, how, when and where.”
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