We all remember the frenzied pace of kitchen pantry loading and panic buying that characterized the early stages of consumer response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Grocery shelves were left empty as if a swarm of locusts had invaded the store and left it barren, and in a way, it’s kind of what happened.

Our Checkout data shows receipt traffic at food/drug/mass/warehouse channels accelerated double-digits for the weeks ending March 14 and March 21, the start of sheltering in homes in many areas of the country. For the weeks ending March 28 and April 4, receipt traffic in these channels settled slightly below the pre-outbreak baseline. This indicated a return to normalcy in grocery buying and more emphasis on staying at home.

But what about those overloaded pantry shelves and that freezer in the garage that consumers have filled to the brim? Is the presence of all of that food changing our consumption habits?  Leveraging our National Eating Trends® (NET®) consumer panel we’re linking pantry loading behaviors to actual consumption behaviors to understand how habits are being impacted by the consumer response to the COVID-19 outbreak and the implications for the future. Early returns from our NET® COVID-19 Pantry & Food Strategy Tracker tell us that consumers describe almost three-fourths of their eating occasions as “atypical,” compared to what they would have done before the outbreak of COVID-19.  

Another question being asked is: at what rate will consumers eat through their overstocked pantry? Our pantry loading study finds that the vast majority of U.S. homes now have five or more packages of the same item. While many of these items are shelf-stable and will last long, categories like fresh and refrigerated items make that list too. Consumers want to feel normal in their homes despite what’s happening around them and stocking up on typical pantry items helps them achieve this. Keeping pantries stocked also minimizes trips to the store and exposure to other shoppers. Additionally, pricing is going to be a major factor for consumers as 1 in 5 of our respondents say they are unemployed due to COVID-19.

The detailed findings of this study will provide more granular insights at the food category level, but these initial results begin to give us a picture of how consumers are stocking their pantries and what their in-home eating behaviors are while sheltering in their homes. We’ll also begin to measure whether consumption rates of certain items have changed compared to the pre-crisis norm. In other words, are consumers really going to eat all those canned garbanzo beans they bought while panic shopping?