By Steve Guilbert
About this time last year, in amongst the usual ubiquitous year-end top ten lists and articles about trends we should be looking out for in 2020, were reports of an outbreak of a mysterious illness in a Chinese city. As we entered the New Year and decade no-one could have predicted just how truly extraordinary, challenging and transformative 2020 would turn out to be. This year will teach us many valuable lessons but surely in the top 10 of any 2020 takeaways is the maxim that predicting the future is a fool’s errand.
Yet as we draw near to another New Year, in the media and blogosphere predictions again proliferate about what we’ll be wearing, driving, reading, watching as well as eating and drinking in 2021 and beyond. Most are mildly diverting clickbait but some offer real industry insight about how habits and attitudes have changed over this past year, how likely these changes are to be permanent, and the extent to which they might now be considered, to use a much repeated phrase, the new normal.
A good example of the latter, that’s been recently published and picked-up by a number of news sites, is the Waitrose and Partners Food and Drink 2021 Report. It’s short, concise, full of fascinating insight, and brimming with consumer survey data on what and how we buy, and our changed attitudes to food: where it comes from, how we cook it, and how important it is to our health and well-being.
Some Stats for Starters
Let’s have a few interesting stats for starters. You’re probably familiar with the ‘mega-trend’ that is home pickling and preserving (searches on Waitrose.com for ‘pickling’ up 222%) but perhaps less so with the return of oxtail (sales up 258%) and the home working associated trend for slow-cooked meat. Clams, cockles, mussels and oysters are reportedly back too with sales of British seafood up 200% over the last six months, while the popularity of Asian store cupboard essentials like Japanese Rice Vinegar (up 180%) and Chinese Rice Vinegar (up 194%) represents something of a new trend. UK social media mentions of pulses are up an incredible 600% (although presumably from a fairly low base?), while the desire for barista quality coffee at home has seen a 64% increase in sales of ‘bean to cup’ coffee machines.
What factors can explain this ostensibly random assortment of individual trends? The Waitrose and Partners report identifies a number key structural shifts in consumer attitudes and behaviour that have occurred over the course 2020. The first of these concerns cooking.
The pandemic, the report argues, has permanently changed our relationship with food, with cooking and eating assuming a more central and meaningful place in our lives. This was found to be particularly the case for those working from home, three-quarters of which stated that cooking dinner provided the break between ‘working time’ and ‘home time’, in effect punctuating the day in a similar but more positive way to the commute. 63% of working-from-homers also reported that mealtimes have become more of an event, a sentiment shared by three-quarters of young professionals who found that the ritual of preparing something to eat had taken on an increased importance. Moreover, we are apparently also more organised as a nation with 53% of us now carefully planning meals and writing shopping lists and 66% of us now more watchful of waste.
Not surprisingly, another one of the fundamental ‘seismic’ shifts in consumer behaviour caused by COVID and highlighted in this report concerns how, where, and when we shop for food. The pandemic, it confirms, caused an unprecedented surge in online food shopping, with a quarter of us buying food online for the first time and three quarters of us now doing at least some of our grocery shopping online (up from 61% a year ago). As a result of this online surge Waitrose.com has trebled its size and now accounts for nearly 20% of the total business (up from 5% last year).
But it’s not just how, but how often we food shop that’s also changed, with many people rediscovering the benefits of the less frequent food shop. 57%, for example, reported food shopping once a week or fortnight in 2020 compared with 39% in 2016. This year may also have witnessed some of the final nails in the coffin of cash with Waitrose reporting that it accounted for only 10% of in-store transactions during COVID (down from 22% pre-COVID). With reduced fears of transmission risk use of cash may well bounce back to pre-COVID levels but many of the other significant shifts in shopping habits look likely to be more permanent with 60% of survey respondents saying the changes they made during COVID will stick long-term.
Attitudes to Food and Farming
If our behaviour has changed significantly, so has our attitude to food. The pandemic has focused minds on the things that matter and we have, the report suggests, ‘a new appreciation for the food we buy and how we buy it’. It found, for example, that 57% of us value food more now than we did pre-COVID. As has been mentioned in some of our previous posts, one of the key things it seems we have come to value when it comes to food is familiarity, comfort and nostalgia, manifest in things like increased sales of traditional favourites and efforts to be more self-sufficient (four in ten of us, for example, grew our own food during the long lockdown), and less wasteful (seven in ten homeworkers sometimes ate last night’s leftovers for lunch).
We also seem to have an increased appreciation for the people who produce and supply our food. 70% of us now value the role of supermarket workers more than we did at the start of 2020, while 74% of people want to see more food businesses in the UK express their support for local British producers – although shoppers themselves seem a little less enthusiastic to buy local British produce directly with only 44% saying they’d consider subscribing to a service that sent fresh produce directly from farm to door.
Health and Well-being
Nevertheless, the importance of ‘localness’, community and neighbourhood have all emerged as strong themes over the pandemic. 60% of those who got involved in their local communities over lockdown, for example, said they intend to carry on, a figure that rises to 70% among the 35-44 age group.
Even more local still, maintaining our own physical and mental wellbeing has, the report suggests, been paramount over the pandemic and led to a ‘permanent readjustment in many people’s psyches’. 53% of us, it claims, feel the pandemic has acted as a reset button in our busy lives. 60% of respondents, for example, have been trying harder to keep themselves physically heathy during the pandemic. On waitrose.com portion size searches are up 57%, high fibre recipes 230%, high protein recipes 330%, and Mediterranean meal plans up a colossal 630%.
Of course, visitors to waitrose.com are a long way from being representative of the UK population as a whole, and while the research that informs this report was not undertaken exclusively with Waitrose shoppers it clearly should be read as an interesting portrait of a certain privileged demographic. The picture it paints of ‘our’ changed food attitudes and behaviours and our experience of the pandemic could not contrast more shockingly with the picture painted by another recently published report from the Social Market Foundation, which finds that one in four children, 3 million in total, have faced some form of food deprivation in the six months following lockdown, and that 16% of parents said that their children made do with smaller portions, had to skip meals or went a day without eating between March and September.
A New Consumer Worldview?
The Waitrose report confidently proclaims that from the disruption and uncertainty of COVID-19 comes the ‘emergence of a new consumer worldview’. Our daily rituals, and attitudes to supermarkets and the way we shop have all been fundamentally reshaped, it suggests, and what’s more, ‘these changes are here to stay’.
I’m not sure about the emergence of a new food ‘consumer’ worldview. With the report’s references to localness, participation, community, health and well-being it sounds a lot like people are thinking and behaving more like the engaged and proactive food ‘citizen’ espoused by April Rinne of the World Economic Forum in a recent Forbes article, than it does the ‘passive, just-buy-this’ consumer.
Given the year we’ve had, and the uncertainly that still, at the time of writing, lies ahead in 2021, I’m not sure either that I’d be as confident in my predictions for the future. For the food system, things will never quite be the same again for sure, but the scale and permanence of these changes still remains to be seen. Predicting the future is a fool’s errand and none of us really knows what the long-term looks like. What perhaps we can say, however, and to quote a sage member of our own Expert Panel, is that while we don’t know what the long-term looks like, ‘we know it’s closer than it used to be’!
 See for example:
 All sales figures are compared with the same period the previous year, unless otherwise stated.