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Evolving Consumer Behaviors

The Great Consumer Adaptation: Consumer Trends in an Inflationary Environment

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Some of the major challenges that impacted the food retail industry in the first years of this decade — the pandemic, supply chain bottlenecks, and societal upheaval — have calmed in recent months. But new challenges have taken their place. Inflationary pressures are not transitory. Even if the pace of food inflation has cooled somewhat from the double-digit highs of mid-2022, many economists anticipate a climate of high prices for at least the short-term future, as it takes time for greater input costs to recalibrate. The Congressional Budget Office, for its part, projects that high inflation will continue through 2023.

There seems to be an understanding among consumers, too, that inflation above the traditional rates that the market has experienced for the better part of 35 years will persist. A recent US Grocery Shopper Trends report from FMI revealed that 62% of shoppers say they are spending more at the grocery store compared to a year ago. Other data tell us that 70% of consumers are “very” or “extremely” concerned about rising food prices and have noticed price hikes across most products. Almost one-third of those surveyed say they worry more now about having enough to eat.

The ripple effect of measurable inflation and consumer sentiment about inflation is real, as consumers adjust their shopping, cooking, and eating behaviors in many differing ways to address the economic pressures they are experiencing.

Cooking at Home Continues

The culinary and meal preparation skills that consumers sharpened and relied on during the early days of the pandemic have come in handy, as many shoppers are coping with inflation by cooking more at home. FMI’s trends tracker research shows that an overwhelming nine out of 10 consumers consider home meals more economical and well over half (57%) are managing expenses by dining out less often. When they are eating at home, consumers are also reining in costs by eating leftovers more frequently and trying to reduce food waste.

Deal-Seeking Accelerates

Not surprisingly, shoppers are seeking out savings during this period of elevated prices for food and other everyday essentials. Half of shoppers who are concerned about rising prices told FMI’s researchers that they are looking for deals. In addition to scouring stores for price cuts, consumers are embracing private label offerings; 44% say they are buying more store brands. Retailers that offer savings and, importantly, communicate those discounts to their customers, demonstrate they understand the shopper’s plight and are trying to help their customers stretch their grocery dollars. In doing so, these retailers earn customer loyalty points along the way.

The Loyalty Factor

On the topic of loyalty, consumers are also taking advantage of services and special offers through retailers’ loyalty programs as they are mindful of their food budgets. FMI’s trends tracker found that 28% of shoppers are using store loyalty programs, including store loyalty apps, more frequently. Only 16% of shoppers believe loyalty benefits are unimportant.

A sign marketing a special to buy three and get one free

Power of the Pivot

Another consumer shift that began with the pandemic and has continued through the ripple challenges of surging inflation and out-of-stocks due to supply chain backups has more to do with attitude than action. Shoppers are more nimble than ever, mirroring retailers’ heightened and now-proven ability to pivot when necessary. Whether switching brands when favorite products were unavailable, learning how to use grocery technologies like online shopping and QR codes, or rethinking value to balance price and personal satisfaction, shoppers are increasingly adept at adapting.

In addition, as they find ways to deal with concurrent imperative issues, consumers remind us that our industry remains essential and relevant to them. FMI’s tracking research affirms that four-out-of-ten shoppers report that they “like” or “love” to grocery shop.

Our industry is working diligently to nurture that positive mindset. Food retailers, manufacturers, and technology providers have continued to stay resilient and nimble, too, collaborating to help shoppers find products at price points that meet their household needs. A host of innovations and efficiencies have emerged in the past few years, helping to keep food costs lower than in many other nations. On the farm, in production facilities, at points of distribution and transport, and in the stores and online, those in America’s remarkable food supply chain have made food accessible and comparatively more affordable since the last big spikes in inflation in the 1980s.

Investing in better customer experiences both in-store and online ensures that consumers are prepared to handle what comes next. Our commitment as an industry to continually do better also lets customers know that they are supported in any environment, from the ongoing volatile climate to the inevitable — and hopefully soon — quieter and steadier time in the future.

The Great Consumer Adaptation: Consumer Trends in an Inflationary Environment