Consumers spending more at the grocery, reversing decades of increased restaurant spending

Posted at 4:54 PM, May 06, 2020

As restaurants and bars closed due to stay at home orders across the U.S., people cooked more and turned to grocery stores for their food.

Some shoppers said they are finding that they are spending more at the grocery store as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“More at the grocery store, less at restaurants,” one shopper packing up his car trunk with groceries said.

“We are still trying to make a concerted effort to get takeout from restaurants,” another shopper said.

More of their paychecks are going toward groceries. “Probably double, yeah it doubled,” Charlotte, another shopper, said.

U.S. Census Bureau data showed just that -- a 27 percent increase in grocery store spending from February 2020 to March 2020 alone. Data shows that over the past few decades, our spending on grocery items has generally decreased while our taste for restaurants and dining out has gone up.

“The change in spending really starts in the 1970s and I think it has a lot to do with who is doing the cooking and how much time they have to cook. Starting in the 1970s, you really start to see a lot more women working outside the home, a lot more two income households, and a lot less time to be spending on cooking for the family,” Sarah Wassberg Johnson, a food historian, said. She explained that at certain points in history, we saw similar trends.

“In many ways we’re kind of going back to some of the pre-1960s ways of living, in that a lot more people are at home and a lot more people have a lot more time to spend on things like meal planning and prepping,” she said.

You’ve probably seen the internet’s new obsession with talking about baking or social media-crazed food trends. Our eating habits are getting a blast from the past, before the rise of eating out.

“If you look at history, any time there is any sort of economic or societal upheaval, people get very nostalgic because nostalgia is comfortable,” Wassberg Johnson said.

While restaurants were forced to close their doors and moved to takeout or delivery models, the industry saw a 20 percent decrease in spending from February to March after slowly rising in popularity over the past few decades, U.S. Census Bureau data shows, causing an abrupt reverse in progress.

“Unfortunately with COVID, the restaurants that are getting hurt the worst are the independents,” David Corsun, Director of the Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management at the University of Denver, said. He’s referring to independent, local restaurants that may not have the footprint chain restaurants have,

“There’s been a lot of romanticizing of the industry because of what we’ve been able to see on TV, and that has made it quite sexy. So a lot of people wanted to get into the industry,” he said. This gave people more choices, in a time when time was becoming more valuable.

“There's just been this pull. A lot of it convenience related, some of it experience related, and some of it just time related. People don't want to take the time to grocery shop and cook,” Corsun said.

“l’ve been asked a lot what do you think is going to survive after coronavirus and it’s really impossible to say, because it depends on what our society looks like after coronavirus,” Wassberg Johnson said.

While some states begin reopening restaurants, grocery stores remain open for buyers.

“I’m not going to a restaurant, I’m not going to a bar, I’m just going to the grocery store,” one shopper noted.