The Independent’s Playbook: How to Serve a New Way of Eating

June 23, 2020

By Jim Dudlicek, Director of Communications and External Affairs

It’s no secret that the pandemic has compelled consumers to change how they live their lives, and their relationship with food is near the top of the list. The closing of restaurants for dine-in service forced folks to eat at home more often, and even as states gradually allow eateries to reopen, it will likely be a while before consumers fully regain the confidence to embrace their old habits.

And the longer the pandemic’s effects linger, the longer it will take. But independent supermarkets are uniquely positioned to fulfill these evolving needs.

To be sure, consumers’ eating habits have changed. According to the latest annual Food & Health Survey from the International Food Information Council, more than eight in 10 Americans say they have experienced some change to their habits surrounding eating or food preparation.

As grocers quickly observed, cooking more at home is the biggest change, but many people also are snacking more, washing produce more than usual, and thinking about food in general. The amount of in-person shopping is down, especially among those who have a compromised immune system. Meanwhile, online grocery shopping has increased while in-person trips per week have fallen.

While taste and price continue to be among the top factors in food decisions, health concerns have surged in importance. According to the IFIC survey, 54% of all consumers, and 63% of those age 50-plus, care more about the healthfulness of their choices now than they did in 2010.

Other behaviors on the rise: following a diet, being familiar with dietary guidelines, using health monitoring apps, replacing meals with snacks, eating plant proteins and meat substitutes, limiting sugars, and considering environmental impact when making food selections.

It’s a shift that’s expected to forever change the relationship between food retailer and consumer. As Josh Mellinger, fresh supply chain leader at Deloitte, noted in a recent NGA webinar, trends that were emerging before the pandemic – safer products, healthier products, local products, transparency – have taken a leap forward: “We’ve seen five years’ worth of trends come true in just a couple months.”

Among food categories, organics hit a record $50.1 billion in sales last year and have seen demand continue to accelerate in 2020 as consumers stock up on food and focus on eating healthier. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic produce sales rose more than 20% this past spring, with other organic categories like dairy, eggs, bread, pasta, rice, grains and baking ingredients expected to continue growing this year.

Additionally, market researcher IRI, in a recent webcast announcing its latest New Product Pacesetters, speculated that market-leading products in 2020 and beyond will be propelled by the current momentum in sustainability, natural products, health and wellness, and indulgence, with future innovation guided by personal health and safety, and economic considerations.

Luckily for independent supermarkets, local products, clean eating and wellness have long been in their playbook.

For example, Pilgrim’s Market in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, preaches a holistic approach to wellness, trains associates to have a thorough knowledge of products’ wellness attributes, and hosts regular events on a wide array of health and wellness topics.

Roots Market in Clarksville, Md., near Washington, D.C., focuses on “clean, healthy and delicious” foods, maintains a list of banned ingredients, and stresses local products as a benefit to the economy and environment as well as freshness and taste.

At PCC Community Markets in Seattle, 98% of the produce is organic, packaging is sustainable and stores are built to the highest green building standards. And to the southeast in Washington state, Walla Walla’s Harvest Foods actively supports dozens of local farmers and producers.

Independent grocers know their customers and their communities, and are best equipped to listen to and deliver on their evolving needs.

The complete IFIC survey is available here: