The latest data from foodservice market research firm Datassential was released on March 17, summarizing the response of consumers as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated in the United States. The report acknowledged what it called a “wave of fear” due to the uncertainty of just how wide the disease has spread.
“Store shelves are wiped clean of supplies and food, group gatherings have been discouraged or outlawed entirely, and mandatory restaurant closures have been begun,” the report said.
Here are highlights from Datassential’s latest wave of research, fielded March 13-14 with 1,000 U.S. consumers, contributing their opinions about food and coping with the new coronavirus.
In just four days, concern among the general U.S. population has risen dramatically, reflected in attitudes to dining, takeout and stocking food and other everyday staples.
“With the accelerating cycle of Coronavirus news, 71% of Americans now consider themselves ‘very familiar’ with the situation – a massive jump of 13 points in just half a week,” the report said.
It also said that personal concern for exposure is also up 8 points. As of this past weekend, 49% of consumers are very concerned about the risk, and are “hugely worried about my own personal health and plan to do whatever I can.”
Two-thirds are concerned about eating at restaurants. A clear majority of Americans today have grown fearful of restaurants, and 27% now definitely avoid eating out entirely, a jump of 8% in just 4 days. The increased fear persists across demographic groups, with particularly large spikes among Boomers (+12%) and Gen X (+9%).
Moreover, the concern has now spilled over beyond just parents; restaurant avoidance has now spiked aggressively among single adults and those without kids.
Some consumers associate a higher risk factor with food.
“The disease spreads so quickly and so easily that any contact seems to transmit it from one person to another,” a 24-year-old man in Hartford, Wis., told Datassential. “Beyond this, the quickest way to get it is by having the virus enter your mouth. Food obviously goes directly into your mouth, so if it’s handled by someone with the virus, you’re almost guaranteed to get the virus.”
When it comes to restaurants, people are most sensitive about touching shared objects – countertops, napkin dispensers, chairs, cash, and countless other surfaces that are pretty much unavoidable in a foodservice setting.
The report recommends that eateries should try and make the environment as touch-free as possible. That means eliminating as many contact points as possible, while also having staff use gloves and other protective measures to minimize the potential for transmission.
Concerned consumers are stocking up, too. Initially, the confusing surprise turned out to be finding empty toilet paper shelves. Cleaning and disinfectant supplies as well as hand sanitizer shelves were next to be cleared by shoppers. Datassential found that people have now turned to more practical items, preparing to hunker down at home as directed by government and health officials in order to stop the spread of the virus.
”Specifically in response to COVID-19, 47% have already stocked up on supplies for their household by March 14,” the Datassential report said. “Their mindset is clear – we’re getting ready to survive at home.”
People are stocking up on just about everything –with dry foods (cereals, chips, dry pasta, etc.) leading the pack alongside paper goods (towels, toilet paper, etc.), and canned foods. There’s a run on multiple categories, leading to a string of single-day sales records at many grocery locations.
Of consumers who have already stocked up, they were asked, “What have you stocked up on since learning about COVID-19?”
The COVID-19 pandemic has made everything’s at least a little risky to consumers. this includes all manner of ways that food enters their homes. Meal kits are generally thought to be the safest solution – but even those are deemed too risky by 19% of consumers, with only a minority (38%) believing them to be not risky at all.
Businesses will have to prove to customers that they offer a safe environment. Consumers were asked: “How risky do you consider each of the following ways to get food as it relates to coronavirus?”
Cooking with heat seems to serve up confidence in the safety of food. According to Datassential, 62% of consumers believe that cooking food kills Coronavirus, agreeing that “Coronavirus can not be contracted through food that has been thoroughly cooked.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, these attitudes will evolve. The crisis is extremely fluid. Government policy and economic factors are changing daily as businesses – in the roles of both employers and suppliers of goods and services – respond to the situation.