CV-19 Is Changing Buying Habits

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There is a limitless number of topics that we could explore the changes to as a result of recent events. For this article, I’ll focus on examining changes to food markets from the angle of my household purchases.  I’ll ask you to examine your consumer habits as your read this as a lens to think about the changes happening in broader food markets.

Dinning Out

My family has been eating out less often than we did several months ago. Our past habits had me eating out 1-2 times per week for lunch and 1-2 times per week for dinner with my family. The eating out for lunch has stopped completely and the take-out from restaurants has probably replaced about half of the restaurant dinners.

Grocery Store

One change we have made to reduce the risk of acquiring or spreading the virus is to reduce the number of trips to the grocery store each week.  In the past, we may have stopped at the store 2-3 times each week but now we are only going about once every 9-10 days. For some items it is easy to shift to this new schedule, for example we can purchase 3 boxes of cereal instead of one but for others such as strawberries, raspberries, or salad it creates some challenges. These perishable items with a shorter shelf life are hard to stock up on for 10 days.

School Lunch

Both a student and a teacher are part of my household. They have shifted from lunch being primarily prepared by the school lunch program to at home lunches. This means less pints of milk and a different variety of lunch options (my daughter informed me we don’t ever have Bosco sticks or sub sandwiches at home). Soup or leftovers for lunch at home are more common than at school.

Why does this matter?

Although we don’t keep track of food consumption (currently or previously) in any sort of way that could be measured consistently, we are probably eating a similar amount of food. At a quick glance you might be tempted to say our demand for food has not changed. However, this would miss a couple of important points. First, some food suppliers and manufacturers are focused on providing products for use by commercial food customers. They might produce 40-pounds bags of cheese, pints of milk, 10-pound bags of lettuce, 20-pound bags of French fries or ketchup packets. They also have supply chains that are focused on getting their products to schools, restaurants, and cafeterias. When was last time you have seen or purchased any of these items in these quantities for home consumption? Some of the food suppliers may be able to switch production from larger quantities (pints of milk to gallons) relatively easily while others may not be able to do that quickly or inexpensively. A second important issue is the consumption of different foods at home than at restaurants or school. A pint of chocolate milk at school or French fries with a restaurant meal are common. When was the last time you cooked French fries at home or purchased a pint of milk to bring home? This change in what consumers are eating has created some situations where certain products are in high demand causing some short-term supply challenges. There are also products that have reduced demand with limited storage options (vegetables, milk, potatoes, etc.) to go bad before a buyer can be found or they end up quickly filling limited warehouse and freezer space. Third, this change in consumer buying habits also has implications for workers employed in businesses that produce products primarily intended for retail or commercial markets.  Some employers may be hiring extra employees or offering overtime to workers to meet this new demand while others maybe cutting hours or laying off workers. How have your food habits changed over the past few weeks and what are the implications for food businesses as a result of those changes?

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About Author

Joel Schumacher

Joel Schumacher, an extension economics associate specialist in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics at Montana State University. Much of his research has focused on understanding the economics and public policy implications of small and community scale alternative energy projects. Joel also researches and provides extension training in retirement planning, saving and investing. Helping Montanans stay up to date on the ever changing laws and regulations affecting consumer issues is an interesting and challenging area.

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