Lockdown shopping: Chocolate chips, frozen pizza up, energy bars nosedive

Lockdown shopping: Chocolate chips, frozen pizza up, energy bars nosedive
© JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images

Americans bored at home during the coronavirus lockdown are rediscovering their love of baking and cooking, reversing a decades-long trend that has reshaped the grocery store experience.

Consumer data shows sales rising in what the grocery industry calls its center store, the aisles where cereals, baking products and cooking staples are found. On the other hand, deli sales are down, and products like store-prepared meals have dropped sharply.

Industry analysts said that reverses trends that have accelerated over the last 40 years or so. As Americans have become busier and dedicated more time to work, they have spent less money on those center store aisles and more on pre-made, time-saving meals.

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One product that has seen the most dramatic year-over-year rise is the humble chocolate chip.

“We're making chocolate chip cookies. I made chocolate chip cookies. They were excellent, by the way,” said Neil Stern, a senior partner at McMillanDoolittle who consults for clients in the grocery industry. “The sales mix looks like it did back in 1980,” when more people cooked at home.

The sales mix is also larger, data from the research firm IRi shows. Americans are taking fewer trips to the grocery store, but they are buying more when they do venture out. More than 70 percent of consumers said they had enough groceries to cover their household needs for two weeks or more.

Nielsen data shows Americans are buying fewer products they might use when they go out. Lip cosmetics sales have dropped by a third, as have shoe inserts and insoles. Sunscreen sales are down 31 percent over the last week. Sales of energy bars have cratered.

And perhaps because fewer people are venturing out, less food is getting wasted. More than a third of grocery shoppers say they are now more successful in avoiding food waste than they were before the pandemic, according to data collected by FMI, the food industry association in Washington.

Frozen foods — especially pizza and French fries — are having a moment. Frozen pizza sales over the last 11-week period have jumped by more than half, according to Nielsen, and sales of all frozen foods have jumped 40 percent.

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Americans are spending six times as much as they did last year on hand sanitizer, an understandable splurge in the midst of a pandemic, and sales of multi-purpose cleaners and aerosol disinfectants have at least doubled. 

But the run on toilet paper is easing. Bath tissue sales were up 16 percent over last year's levels for the week ending May 16, far lower than the 60 percent increase in sales of toilet paper over the longer 11-week timespan. 

The coming summer months have accelerated sales of grilling items like hotdogs, hamburgers and buns, according to analysis by the investment bank Jefferies.

But the nation's meat supply remains a concern for the grocery industry, after waves of coronavirus have hit meat packing plants in Midwestern states.

The consolidation in the meat packing industry means that even if just a few plants go offline, a substantial amount of the nation’s pork, beef and poultry supply can be disrupted. Working conditions in plants, where it is more likely to be cold and workers stand in close proximity for hours on end, make them unique opportunities for the coronavirus to spread.

“Clearly, meat, poultry, pork is a concern because of the way that product is produced,” Stern said. “The disruption to that particular supply chain could be pretty profound.”

Americans appear to be handling the outbreak in another way: Alcohol sales have skyrocketed in recent weeks. Total alcohol sales are up more than a quarter, sales of wine are up nearly 31 percent, and spirits sales are up by more than a third since the beginning of March.

It is not clear whether Americans are actually consuming more alcohol during the lockdowns, Stern said, or if they are simply replacing alcohol they might have purchased at bars and restaurants with booze they consume on the couch.

“Grocery sales are way up and on-premise consumption is way down. I don’t know necessarily that we're drinking more alcohol, I just know that we're drinking more alcohol at home,” he said. 

In what may be the most promising news, purchases of tobacco products has declined, a hopeful sign in the face of a respiratory virus. Tobacco sales have been below year-over-year numbers for months, according to the IRi Consumer Network Panel, a weekly study of consumer behavior.