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Champaign, Illinois — A new study shows how Americans obtained food at different times during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how those activities changed over time as case numbers fluctuated and a vaccine became available. We are investigating how it has changed with

“Besides food availability and restaurants and the grocery industry, this tells us how people behave during a crisis. said Melissa Ocepek, professor of computer science at . Melissa Osepek studies the intersection of information and culture with a focus on food.

brena ellison headshot

Brena Ellison, a former professor of agriculture and consumer economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and now at Purdue University, was a co-author of a study examining food-buying behavior during a pandemic.

Photo by Tom Campbell


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Ocepek works with Brenna Ellison, a former professor of agricultural and consumer economics in Illinois and now at Purdue University, and Maria Kalaitzandonakes, a PhD student in agricultural and consumer economics in Illinois. cooperated. The researchers reported their findings in the journal PLOS ONE.

They buy groceries in person, buy groceries online, order from meal kit services, eat at indoor restaurants, eat at outdoor restaurants, order takeout at restaurants, visit food banks, and farmers markets. We analyzed eight food-purchasing activities of a visit to

They used data from September 2020, December 2020 and March 2021 survey responses. This is the point after the initial panic buying and stockpiling early in the pandemic. Although his rate of new COVID-19 cases in September 2020 was relatively low, there were concerns about an increase in cases in the winter and uncertainty about the timing of vaccines. In December 2020, the country saw its first spike in cases, and the first vaccine became available to certain people. In March 2021, the downward trend was expected to continue due to widespread vaccine deployment, and cases were declining.

“We wanted to understand what happened when people were on the other side of the panic mindset, and to see how people were behaving. How has buying changed?” Ellison said.

One of the most surprising findings is that in-person grocery shopping has been very common throughout the pandemic, despite an increase in online grocery shopping. According to survey data, over the three time periods he reported that over 90% of people shopped in person.

“This finding suggests that physical store grocery shopping won’t disappear anytime soon, as was often predicted even before the COVID-19 pandemic,” the researchers wrote. increase.

Ocepek, who has studied online grocery shopping in the past, says there’s something unique about buying groceries in person.

“People like to see meat, they like to see produce, they like to see what’s in season. Those things aren’t very good at replicating online,” she said. rice field.

Activities that require less face-to-face contact, such as online grocery shopping, ordering takeout, and using meal kit services, peaked in December 2020. Visits to food banks and farmers markets also peaked during this time. Increased use of online grocery shopping and food bank shopping continued through March 2021.

According to Ellison, the findings point to a growing class of hybrid shoppers who purchase food through both in-person and online shopping, with online shopping complementing rather than replacing in-person shopping. , says Ellison. Grocers need to consider their marketing strategies and engage with consumers in ways that make them shop at the company for both experiences, she said.

Before the pandemic, Americans spent more than half of their food spending on food consumed outside the home, researchers write. As the state restricted access to restaurants, they shifted to more takeout, with about 80% of full-service restaurants adding curbside pickup options.

Takeaway orders peaked in December 2020, but survey results showed that activity was common across all three periods.

Just under a third of survey participants reported eating at indoor and outdoor restaurants in September 2020. The proportion of indoor dining increased significantly in March 2021 and increased throughout the period, while outdoor dining decreased consistently throughout these periods.

The youngest study participants, aged 18-34, were significantly more likely to eat at restaurants, both indoors and outdoors, than the oldest individuals aged 55 and over.In December 2020 The percentage of people over 55 who ate indoors decreased. The Midwest in December 2020 also saw a significant drop compared to the rest of the country.

Restaurants are more vulnerable to the COVID-19 surge, and onsite dining rates are more variable. Researchers say we need to find ways to make people feel comfortable coming back to restaurants. We also need to find options when people don’t feel safe eating indoors, such as closing streets to encourage outdoor dining, as in some cities, researchers said. says. They also need to market themselves to those most willing to eat out.

Ocepek and Ellison plan to use the survey data to answer other questions about food acquisition, including more specific ways in which shopping behavior changed. They asked whether shoppers were making fewer trips to the grocery store per week compared to pre-pandemic, comparing shopping at multiple stores, or just visiting one store. , want to know what products they are buying in person or online. I am also interested in the consumer’s emotional response to shopping.

“Everyone has feelings about grocery shopping. It creates a really great environment for understanding so many other things about our culture and society,” said Osepek.

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