Coronavirus impacting how Americans buy groceries, eat out

Published on
March 9, 2020

In the wake of coronavirus-related cases and mortalities increasing in the United States, Americans are already staying home more and eating out less.

Reports of “panic buying” hand sanitizers, toilet paper, cold and flu medicines, and other products are prolific. Many Americans have shifted to buying non-perishable foods to stock their pantries (such as fruit snacks and oat milk, according to Nielsen) – a move that bodes well for canned and shelf-stable seafood suppliers.

In search of products for their “pandemic pantries”, more Americans are shifting to online ordering, according to news reports. In fact, Amazon recently warned customers that its Prime Now and Amazon Fresh delivery services could have limited availability and orders could take longer to deliver, Bloomberg reported.

In response to the crisis, grocery delivery service Instacart announced it is stepping up the roll-out of its "Leave at My Door Delivery” service, which gives customers the option to have an order left by their door rather than a driver handing them the order, CNN reported.

The news about coronavirus worsening – the number of cases in Washington state, one of the centers of the outbreak in the U.S., has risen to 70 (along with 11 deaths) as of 6 March – consumers are likely to change how they buy food in the near-term.

Fifty-two percent of consumers surveyed by foodservice research firm Technomic said they are likely to avoid crowds, while 32 percent said they will eat out at restaurants less often. Thirteen percent plan to order more food via restaurant delivery.

Operators that stand to lose the most business are full-service eateries, foodservice consulting firm Technomic predicted.

"Consumers could potentially cocoon themselves in their homes and look for eating solutions that will not expose them to unnecessary social interactions," it said in a recent update.

Grocery stores are likely to benefit from consumers’ coronavirus fears, given the reluctance to eat at restaurants, Technomic found.

“Consumers will still need to visit supermarkets to buy the foods they need on a fairly regular basis. They could potentially increase their purchasing of supermarket foodservice items while grocery shopping as a surrogate for restaurant meals,” Technomic said.

Consumers will likely be buying more shelf-stable items, packaged goods, and frozen foods – at least in the near term – according to a new Bernstein analysis, Food Navigator reported.

"However, we expect such growth to be temporary in nature and do not expect any material impact on U.S. food companies' sales on a full-year basis at this stage," Bernstein said.

Tai Foong USA COO and Vice President Eric Lam told SeafoodSource most seafood companies will still be able to sell product as usual in the U.S.

“People are still going to buy food," Lam said. "If they can get stuff online, they will order it. They are going to avoid large public spaces as much as they can … And maybe they will do more bulk shopping.”

While Tai Foong USA sources most of its seafood from Southeast Asia, its production is “running as normal" currently, according to Lam.

“There are no work shortages right now,” Lam said. “However, we are taking steps to stay ahead of any potential production interruptions.”  

Roger Berkowitz, president and CEO of Boston, Massachusetts-based Legal Sea Foods, which operates full-service seafood restaurants (including a handful of airport locations), has a more optimistic perspective of the situation.

While the restaurant industry will likely initially be harmed by some consumers’ “knee-jerk reactions” to coronavirus, the restaurant industry’s sanitation procedures and consumer education should help mitigate the impact, Berkowitz told SeafoodSource.

“If there are folks out there taking precautions and really focusing on and paying attention to it, it should give the public some sense of security,” he said.

Berkowitz noted that quality assurance and sanitation has always been top-of-mind at Legal, which tests the histamine levels in fish, mercury content in swordfish, and thoroughly trains employees on hand-washing and sanitization procedures, he said.

Two years ago, Legal began disinfecting every table and menu with hydrogen peroxide after each use. The restaurant chain also held a contest for employees at the start of flu season this year to increase awareness of hand-washing.

However, Legal’s bottom line is already being impacted by coronavirus, since Seafood Expo North America – which drives business to Legal’s Boston-area restaurants – has been postponed until later this year.

“March is not a busy month in general, so the seafood show was one of the bright spots in the first quarter,” Berkowitz said. Still, the “potential silver lining” is that there will likely be better attendance at the show later in the year than if it was held this month, he predicted.

Photo courtesy of Nicole Glass Photography/Shutterstock 

Contributing Editor

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