NEW YORK — A new consumer survey on fresh foods released by Deloitte shows how consumer attitudes and profiles have changed since 2019.  

Consumers are making fewer shopping trips, changing what and how much they buy, and changing what they value. The survey also identifies two distinct consumer profiles that can help retailers adjust to meet evolving needs.  

While 90% of the 2,000 US adults who responded to the survey in July 2020 reported that fresh food makes them happy, more than half (54%) of consumers feel stressed by shopping in stores, and the number of customers who said they shopped for fresh foods multiple times a week in 2019 dropped by half in 2020. Now, those consumers shop about once every two weeks. 

“This is a troubling change for fresh, a category that is perishable by definition,” Deloitte said in its report, which was authored by Deloitte’s Barb Renner, Brian Baker, Justin Cook and Josh Mellinger. “And perishable means it is not possible for consumers to just stock up in equal amounts and keep fresh food for weeks on end at home.” 

On average, shoppers are still keeping more food stocked in their freezers and pantries than they did before the pandemic, but the surge in demand has led to many consumers facing stockouts of fresh items they wanted to purchase. Two-thirds or 65% of consumers in our study were at least sometimes unable to buy the fresh food they wanted because it was out of stock; one in four say this happened often or almost always. 

This led to shoppers stocking up on different brands and types of foods than they normally would buy, and to more than half of survey respondents left the fresh food category entirely to buy a frozen or processed replacement. 

While price is still a key driver in purchase selection, (90% of shoppers say price is important), a new factor tied with price for first place: safety. Consumers were just as concerned about safety for self, others, and the workers who produce food, as well as safety in terms of packaging to prevent contamination—each of these drivers scored 85% or higher in importance to consumers. 

Other drivers that were gaining traction before the pandemic continued to be of value to consumers, but not as highly as anticipated: time-saving convenience, clarity in food labeling, availability of locally grown foods, concerns about sustainability, and concerns about food waste. 

“A recalibration of priorities on consumers’ part seems in tune with the present times,” said the report. “However, our message to the fresh foods producers is don’t be fooled. These drivers may not be as urgent as price and safety right now, but still are important to 70% or more of consumers surveyed.”

Consumer profiles: Conventional and contemporary 

Deloitte’s survey results established two key consumer profiles: Conventional consumers — tend to be older, lower-income and rural — and Contemporary consumers — younger families, more well-off, urban dwellers, ethnically diverse. Conventional shoppers have a traditional approach to shopping for fresh while contemporary consumers have a more novel approach. 

Contemporary shoppers are more committed to the fresh category. They are willing to pay a premium for fresh food (75% versus 62% for conventional consumers). This group also showed an increase in fresh purchases. In the four months leading up to the survey contemporary shoppers increased their fresh purchases by 50% versus conventional shoppers clocking an increase of 27%.  

Contemporary shoppers seem to place brand at a higher than value than conventional shoppers when buying fresh food with 64% of contemporary customers saying brand is important and 44% of conventional shoppers say so. They also place higher attributes in less pollution and waste and actively consider sustainability aspects such as local sourcing, recyclable packaging, and water neutrality while purchasing perishables (72% of Contemporary compared to 51% of Conventional). 

When it comes to convenience, contemporary shoppers are looking less for items that help save time and more for items that offer stress-free availability. 68% of this group bought at least some fresh food online versus only 9% of conventional consumers. 

“Whether cause or effect, contemporary consumers ordering online place significantly higher trust in their assigned in-store shoppers to pick out the best quality fresh food items that are available in the store (68% of contemporary),” the report said. “That is a phenomenal development for a category such as fresh. This bodes well for overcoming what has typically been a major barrier to online adoption, as traditionally people like to select their own produce.” 

When faced with out-of-stock items, contemporary shoppers are more likely to try new products in place of the original item they were looking for. This provides retailers an opportunity to nudge those customers toward new shopping patterns. 

Reacting to change 

To keep up with changing consumer habits, Deloitte encouraged retailers to focus on keeping it fresh, avoiding stockouts, building a fresh image, focusing on innovation and moving forward. 

With many customers cutting down on shopping trips it is more important than ever that fresh items at their freshest when available for customers to purchase.  

“Collaborate more closely with your supply chain partners, consider intermittent deliveries and smaller shipment sizes,” Deloitte suggested. “In-store or online, actively guide customers to food that will last longest (relative to specific item expectations) past the day of purchase. This includes suggesting fresh food items to be consumed now and others that will still be good in week number two.” 

While stockouts are sometimes impossible to avoid, when it does happen it’s important to know patterns of both conventional and contemporary consumers and find a way to nudge them toward suitable replacement items. 

Retailers should also find more ways to engage with contemporary shoppers with the brand or image of fresh. This might be accomplished by emphasizing fresh attribute messaging as a core part of their own brand. 

To meet shoppers in the online shopping world, retailers should continue to innovate.  

“There could be an opportunity to leverage Contemporary consumers’ willingness to try and propensity to like new things, along with their trust of in-store assigned shoppers and interest in subscription boxes, to make purchase recommendations based on the grocer’s assessment of what is at the peak of quality on any given day,” Deloitte suggested.  

As customers feel more comfortable to return to stores, it will be important for retailers to keep moving forward with their ecommerce customers. Instead of creating promotions to get customers back in the store, retailers should focus on strategies that will strengthen omnichannel access to help serve all kinds of shoppers.