Food for thought: How the coronavirus pandemic could shake-up UK appetites

For the majority of UK consumers, when it comes to food, the coronavirus pandemic will be defined by empty supermarket shelves, long queues, and a rediscovered love for home baking.

But while supply chains may have responded quickly to increased demand and changing shopping habits, the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on our food systems are less straightforward.

One thing that is for certain, according to John Giles, senior agri-food consultant at Promar International, is the economic recession caused by the pandemic will prevent food shopping and consumption from going entirely back to normal — even when some sense of normal daily life resumes.

“With huge swathes of people faced with losing their jobs, we’re looking at an economic downturn that could last for several years, and that will have implications for the food people buy,” he says.

“When the shops and restaurants open, we’ll initially see an explosion of pent-up demand, but that will tail-off very quickly as people become more cautious about spending.

“During the 2008 recession people became aware of the cost of food and we saw more people shopping in discount retailers,” he adds. “I think we’ll see even more awareness of costs, and that will change what people buy and from where.”

Unexpected benefits

While that means premium produce and more specialist markets, such as organic, might see a decline in sales, for some areas of the food chain changing purchases might bring unexpected benefits.

“In 2009 it was a real struggle for organic because people couldn’t justify the added expense,” says David Hughes, professor of food marketing at Imperial College, London.

“What they did do, however, was ‘trade down’ to local food: It gave them a warm feeling, like buying organic did, but without the price tag.”

Professor Hughes says local food and retailers — including farm shops and butchers — have done well during the pandemic so far, and the trend is likely to continue in the long-term.

“Local, convenience shopping was already on the rise, but we have seen more people take advantage of their local shop rather than queue outside their local supermarket,” he says.

“There are genuine opportunities for local, provided retailers can bring the convenience aspect and give people a good shopping experience.”

While there might be a long-term increase in local purchasing however, the trend should not be misconstrued as an increased willingness to buy British produce, warns AHDB chief strategy officer Tom Hind.

“We have to beware some of the urban myths about what that pandemic might do to shopper behaviour,” he says. “Shoppers do have a strong affinity with buying British, but it might not be the most important factor.”

Mr Hind says value, convenience, availability and price were likely to factor more highly than provenance, as people focus on ‘savvy shopping’.

“The indications are people are buying what’s familiar and simple, so they are experimenting less.

“We saw in the last recession that waste became more important — people were frugal and tried to make more out of what they bought.

“That doesn’t meant they won’t treat themselves, and one of the things we saw in 2008 was that sales of premium ready meals increased.

“It was a sign that while people didn’t necessarily want to spend in a restaurant, they were prepared to indulge in an affordable way, and I’d expect that to be the trend again.”

Online surge

While some 2008 trends are set to make a return, an increase in the amount of food and drink purchased online is a new phenomenon.

Online shopping was already on the rise, but the lockdown accelerated the amount of food being bought online from 6% to 15% in a matter of weeks.

And while the number if consumers food shopping online might drop slightly once they refamiliarise themselves with supermarket shopping, many will have discovered they enjoy the experience of letting someone else pick and deliver their food for them.

Another potential long-term change could result from new working practices, Mr Giles adds.

“Food habits are built around a 9–5 day and if working practices change, then there could be implications on what people buy and eat,” he says.

“If work-related travel reduces then travel eating — at train stations and airports, for example — could reduce. Also, if people don’t have to commute, they will also have more time to prepare food at home.

“If I was a food business I would be tracking consumer behaviour more closely than ever so they can respond to these changing trends.”

Reassurance for farmers

For those people producing our food, the long-term impact of all of these changes is uncertain, says Mr Hind, but the important thing for farmers to remember is that people always need to eat.

“The overall value in the food chain might change, but as long as producers’ routes to market through a retailer or processor are open, then broadly speaking they should be okay.

“The question is around value and cost. Most farmers produce raw materials that are undifferentiated, and the value is added by processors.”

If the trend for baking and making sandwiches for lunch at home continues, for example, there will be good markets for farmers provided they can meet grain specifications, he adds.

“What will matter is costs and how we measure up against the competition.”

Mr Hind says the key for producers is to think about capital, understand their marketing, and know the risks they, their processors and retailers face.

“The big challenges are around whether farmers are competitive, responsive, and whether they can diversify if they need to. They will be the ones that can ride out this turmoil and potentially even see some benefits.”

This article first appeared on the NatWest agri-business hub

UK journalist currently in the US • Writes about food, agriculture and the environment • Ag policy nerd •

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