Will “Panic Buying” Create a Center Store Renaissance?

The center of the grocery store – where shelf-stable canned, boxed, and bagged goods are merchandized – has been a particular sore point for grocery retailers in recent years, as consumers trended towards fresh and special-diet items. Shoppers came to distrust preservatives, and brands in this area had an especially difficult time appealing to younger shoppers.

In 2017, Coca-Cola senior shopper strategy manager Ron Hughes told Progressive Grocer that millennial consumers thought that the center store was “uninteresting and unappealing”, and that 25% of shoppers in this demographic said that the center store was “a boring part of the store”.

The coronavirus pandemic has completely flipped grocery shopping on its head, and the old rules may no longer apply. In the current climate of panic shopping, consumer needs have narrowed, as shoppers focus on essential goods, products that they can stock up on that will last a long time, and familiar items that they know how to prepare.

Commenting on the sudden surge in sales for canned goods, Conagra Brands CEO Sean Connolly said that people are buying up brands like Chef Boyardee and are “having flashbacks to their childhood.” According to Connolly, “when you see a crisis like this…you tend to see canned goods move first.”

IRI – a data analytics firm specializing in CPG and retail – reported that shelf-stable sales were up 158.1% for the week ending March 22. If shoppers do in fact reacquire their childhood taste for products like canned meats and boxed macaroni and cheese, it’s possible that the pandemic will inspire long-term loyalty for brands that have been struggling to grow.

Another possible consequence of panic buying is that shoppers who had been avoiding center store as a rule will now become familiar with innovations in flavors and ingredients that brands have been introducing in recent years. Some shoppers may not know about the many options for shelf-stable products that are organic, paleo, keto, etc., and this group could discover products that they weren’t aware were available to them in that part of the store.

While we won’t know what long-term trends are going to come out of the pandemic until it’s over, it is possible that the “panic buying” that grocers are currently experiencing will come to change the way that some consumers shop permanently. If the center store does undergo a renaissance, it’s likely that we will see even more innovation, growth, and diversity than even before the pandemic.

However, despite this outlook for the category, it’s very important for brands not to appear opportunistic during the emergency. If they do, they risk losing consumer trust entirely; according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer Special Report, 71% of study participants said that a brand would “lose their trust forever if they witness it valuing profits over people during the pandemic,” and 61% of participants reported that a brand’s actions during the outbreak will have a major effect on future purchasing.

The best thing that brands can do is to be prepared for this (possibly growing) surge in sales, while taking care to demonstrate that they still value the welfare of their employees over their margins. For brands that don’t already have a people-first corporate culture, this may be a difficult transition. But for any brand that wants to not only survive, but thrive going forward, how they act now will be very important for their future.

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