Consumer habits will likely not snap back to normal after the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a WATT Poultry Chat interview, Dr. Jayson Lusk, a distinguished professor and the head of Purdue University's Department of Agricultural Economics, said consumer behaviors had to change due to the pandemic. Optimism about vaccination in the United States is rising, but people may not return to pre-pandemic behaviors immediately. 

Austin Alonzo: Hopefully, the end of COVID-19 is in sight. How have consumer habits changed during the pandemic? Do you expect any changes will become permanent?

Jayson Lusk: Well, let me first say, I hope the end of the pandemic is in sight. And I think one of the interesting things, the frustrating things, has been how long this thing has carried on. 

You know, the biggest changes we saw were really at the beginning of the pandemic, but those effects have reverberated over the past year. So, a year ago, back in March of 2020, middle of March, when the shut-down orders happened we saw a big run up in shopping, food buying through grocery. 

So depending on the data, you look at a roughly 60% increase in the amount of spending that happened in grocery stores. Then there was also the corresponding downward shift in demand and spending for food away from home for food service. Any data set you look at, and there's many of them, you see those two opposite spikes that happened in March of 2020. And they kind of settled back down. But I think the important thing to realize is even today, a year out, we're still spending 10 to 15% more on food bought through grocery than we were before the pandemic and still spending roughly 20% less on food away from home. So even though it's a year out, and even though vaccines are getting getting rolled out, it's still the case that we're not back to buying food the same way we have before. 

In addition to buying more food through grocery, it's also the case that a lot more food is being bought online. So e-commerce in food has been a big change. We were already on a positive trajectory of buying more food through the internet before the pandemic started. But this really put us on an entirely new level. And some of that is direct delivery. Some of that is we order at the grocery store and go pick it up. But either way, we're buying more food online. And I think that's also carried over to meat products, too. I think there's maybe been a traditional view that consumers didn't want to buy their meat online, but we're starting to see that starting to change a bit during the pandemic. 

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There were the sort of box meal services that were fashionable for several years, even before the pandemic and meat got delivered in some of those meal delivery services. But again, I think we're starting to see people buy more meat that way, a recent survey that we did, of consumers, this was in February of 2021 suggested about 25% of people said they had bought meat online or in the last month. So you know, it's not the majority, but it's still not a trivial percent, as well. 

So, you know, maybe going forward thinking about what consumer buying habits will look like in the future: more online. And that may change the way the grocery store looks. So if people are buying particularly more packaged products online, what is the footprint of the grocery store going to look like in the future? I think that's an interesting thing to think about. It may also be the case that because restaurants have been sort of shut down. Is there a blurring of the line between what's a restaurant and what's a grocery store? We've heard of the emergence of dark grocery stores. So essentially grocery stores just filling online orders and sending them to our house. I think that will be interesting. 

The other dynamic, too is consumers. Because we've been home for a long time are learning to cook more. So we might have picked up some skills and even when we can go back to eating out in person, a lot of us including myself will rush out and eat in a restaurant as soon as we can, but others may say, "Hey, I figured out I know some dishes I like to cook now," and and we may choose to you know cook more at home and buy more at grocery than we've done in the past. 

So, interesting dynamics, my crystal ball is cloudy, but I think, you know, we can expect the world not to just revert back to normal, even when the pandemic disappears.

This transcript is edited for length and clarity.

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