In the middle of the store, it was the year of the experimental grocery shopper. Throughout 2020, shoppers took fewer trips to minimize their exposure to COVID-19 and make larger stock-up purchases as dining-out options shrank during the pandemic and cooking at home became the norm. Limited quantities of produce and fresh meat in many parts of the country forced cash-strapped consumers to adjust their routines and look for items that were more widely available, stretched their budgets further and lasted longer.
As a result, a large swath of shelf-stable products at the center store — many in traditional packaged goods categories that have been falling out of favor for years — suddenly got a second look. “People like to buy fresh ingredients, but when those things are taken away — whether it’s because they lost their job, it’s not on-shelf or they only want to shop every other week — they will of course try new things,” said Andrew Russick, vice president of sales and marketing at Pacific Coast Producers, one of the largest suppliers of private label canned tomatoes and other fruits.
Those “new” things included an array of familiar kitchen staples: everything from cereal and oatmeal to nuts, beans, canned vegetables, rice, dry pasta and soup. Russick says that retailers’ pent-up demand for canned tomatoes following an initial run on shelves in March sent the company’s sales up anywhere from 8-12% in late summer and early fall, depending on the product and region. “Shoppers discovered that moving from fresh to shelf stable didn’t hurt them at all,” he said. “They got something that’s portion controlled, all prepped and ready to cook. And the quality was just as good or better than what they were getting from a national brand.”
Similar trends played out in canned peaches and other fruit categories, said Russick. “There is a slight bias around shelf-stable because people think, ‘Well you wrap a can around it and it’s not as fresh’,” he said. “We’ve always known that canning is the freshest thing out there. It’s picked in the field and five hours later it’s in the can. It brought people into purchasing things they wouldn’t normally consider."