When shelter-in-place orders were first issued in March throughout the United States, there was a profound shift in how consumers were purchasing groceries and other household essentials. Certain food items like flour, yeast and sugar were scarce as people sought to buy in bulk when possible, and lines were longer than normal at convenience stores/bodegas, grocery stores, pharmacies, supermarkets and big box outlets throughout the country.
This led to a shift in how many consumers shop, with online grocery shopping and the use of personal shopper services becoming increasingly popular. Both third-part grocery delivery apps (think Instacart or Shipt) and first-party brand apps that facilitate pickup or delivery services (like Walmart Grocery or the Stop & Shop app) saw a spike in new installs and users in March and April. A main driver for this shift, in addition to shelter in place, is the desire for contactless and limited contact purchasing to limit the exposure and curb transmission.
By June, however, with some parts of the county entering month four of shelter in place and others opening back up for business again, are these trends becoming further entrenched or are consumers moving away from hoarding and online grocery shopping? And have updated guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) around COVID-19 packaging and transmission impacted how Americans are purchasing groceries? That’s what we wanted to find out.
To find out, we looked at the data. Specifically, we’ve been polling Americans every month since March using InMobi Pulse, InMobi’s mobile market research platform, to see what adults in the U.S. are saying about their habits. We then supplemented this information with mobile app install data, to see if online grocery services were being downloaded more frequently and to look at who specifically were installing these kinds of mobile apps.
Here’s what we uncovered.
Among the more than 1,500 Americans we talked to in early June, a third said they have not changed their grocery buying behavior. In comparison, only 22% said the same thing in April.
But that’s not to say that grocery buying behavior hasn’t changed at all. In June, 42% said they are spending more on groceries of late – 37% said the same thing in March, while 46% said the same thing in May. Only 6% said they are spending less money on groceries in June.
This increase may be due to the fact that, in June, 27% said they started cooking at home since the pandemic began. This is down from the 30% who said the same thing in both April and May, although 31% of those between the ages of 18 and 25 said they were cooking more at home in June.
Thus far, however, it seems that online grocery purchases are not very common. Only 11% in June said they have started ordering groceries online for delivery or pickup – down from 14% in May. In addition, 15% in June said they are shopping for groceries online (down from 17% in April).
Our survey data shows that many Americans are largely returning to normal (i.e. not buying in bulk and largely purchasing groceries in person). Does our mobile device app install data back this up?
In the third-party grocery delivery app space, we are seeing a leveling out in terms of daily installs. While both Instacart and to a lesser extent Shipt saw a major spike in new installs in late March and early April, both are now seeing numbers more in line to what we observed at the beginning of March, before Americans were sheltering in place. In fact, this is one of the few areas where we are beginning to see a return to normal (pre-COVID levels).
It’s largely the same story in the first-party grocery app space too. For example, the Target, Kroger and Publix apps all saw jumps in late March and/or during various points in April but are more or less back down to their pre-COVID daily install numbers.
A major outlier here, though, is Walmart Grocery. Installs of the app have grown consistently since mid March and peaked in May. By early June, daily installs of the Walmart app remained well above what Target, Kroger and others are seeing.
Why is Walmart bucking the trend? They already had a wide physical footprint and strong brand recognition. They also announced express delivery in two hours or less at the end of April and combined all of their previous apps into one Walmart app in March – two moves that put them in a good position to provide a seamless user experience to a wide range of customers.
It is also worthwhile to note that unlike the third-party apps, many apps owned and operated directly by major grocery store chains offer both pickup or delivery services. This means that consumers can use these apps to buy online but then pick up on site, which enables them to largely avoid delivery fees.
Across both the first-party and third-party grocery apps, who have been downloading these apps since March? And how do these new app installers compare to those who downloaded these apps at the beginning of 2020?
On the gender front, there has been a major spike in female app installers in this space. In January and February, 52% of all app owners were female. But by June, that had jumped to 58%. This aligns with what our survey found, as women were more likely than men to say they had started ordering groceries online for delivery or pickup in May and June of this year.
In this period, the biggest gains by age were among those between 56 and 75. The share of app installers among this age range went from 23% in January and February to 29% in May and June.
This again aligns with what our survey found, as the share of those between 56 and 65 who said they had started ordering groceries online for delivery or pickup went from 3% in March to 12% in June. This makes sense, as older Americans are more likely to become very ill as a result of COVID-19 and are therefore less likely to want to go into a physical store.
Unlike with other categories, it doesn’t necessarily look like that patterns established during the first peak of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to stick around – at least for populations that are not at significant risk of falling ill. By early June, consumers were less likely than before to download and use online grocery services and more likely to have resumed their pre-COVID grocery purchasing habits.
Of course, it’s worthwhile to mention that this covers trends and actions from the beginning of June. By June 24, the number of new cases per day in the U.S. reached levels not seen since March and April. Should new cases continue to remain high, people may then be more willing to download and utilize online grocery services.
So what’s the main takeaway from all of this data? For brands in the food and beverage world, flexibility is key right now. As the situation on the ground changes, brands need to be ready. Keep a close eye on what consumers need and care about, and then make sure they have access to the best channels that are required and that make the most sense for the present moment.
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