…and I invite you to consider what your Co-op means to you and your family these days, especially in light of all the upheaval to which we are constantly adjusting. We at the Co-op have been working on how best to support and provide for all of you this holiday season (like no other to date). In preparing for this, we have been analyzing our trends and also observing those of the industry to assist us in thinking through our various solutions.
Clearly, more people are cooking at home. Not rocket science in light of quarantines and stay-at-home directives, yet the perception is that this trend actually has some staying power. Some presume that this is because there is a lingering concern with eating in restaurants, and as we head into the winter, outdoor dining, at least in New England, has limited appeal… Others think that people have either discovered or rediscovered the appeal of home cooking, both for health and for adventure. One industry journal noted that this last year reversed a 40-year trend of consumer spending from restaurant food service away from home to groceries prepared at home, at least during the last six months. We certainly have been pleasantly surprised with the growth that some of the departments in our store have experienced over the past couple of months. Center-store grocery, for instance, is just booming, and shoppers are discovering all of the fantastic items on our shelves for all types of cooking, as well as continuing the fast pace of baking and staples purchases. Incidentally, we have added many varieties of value-priced items, like Food Club canned beans and tomato products, to both support this increased activity and to meet the needs of Dottie’s shoppers. Meanwhile, frozen food is highly sought after, and this supply line is still showing some challenges, as you may have seen from time to time with empty shelves here and there.
Unsurprisingly, online shopping has shown marked change. According to Progressive Grocer magazine, national online purchases of groceries represented 10.5% of total grocery spending in 2019. In February 2020, that number rose to 14.5%, and by March, it was 27.9%. Here at our Co-op, that number is substantially lower, as we have only recently made our online partnership with Mercato available for a limited number of slots per day, but we are looking to increase its availability considerably over the holiday period as we add and train more staff to support it adequately. Certainly, more people are comfortable with others doing their shopping for them, and as we get better and more focused on this part of our business, we will continue to reward those online shoppers and curbside callers with even better service.
The most interesting statistic for me about the change in grocery trends since the pandemic hit is the number of people who changed their shopping habits to other stores that felt safer and more secure. Progressive Grocer reports that 90% (!) of surveyed consumers shifted some aspect of their shopping due to the pandemic. This may well not continue long-term, but the positive feedback that we have received consistently over the last six months about our safety protocols speaks to this result, and it represents the growth that we are experiencing. Along the way, the understanding of how and why a locally owned and based business can better serve the community, especially in the throes of a pandemic, has benefited our Co-op.
Finally, despite the early panic-buying that we saw, shoppers still are looking carefully at the attributes of what they buy. Safer food sources, i.e., local grass-fed, non-factory feedlot meats and local products that are handled less and more carefully, are of greater concern. Interestingly, some say that the anxiety of the pandemic has actually influenced this type of values-driven choice even more than expected. Again, this is what our Co-op focuses on at its core, and shoppers have responded well to what they have found here.
Consequently, we have seen sales climb past anything we expected, and anything we have seen in the past couple of years. We are cautiously optimistic about this. We know that, as the analysts indicate, these changes of habit may well revert over time when things return to a different normalcy, but hopefully not entirely. We have an opportunity to show our shoppers the Co-op difference—and that difference does not have to cost an arm and a leg, and it offers support in many other ways as well.
Besides our sales and trends to report, we have also been working on negotiating our new contract with the local UFCW 1459. As stated earlier, we have been working in an interest-based-bargaining context and have slowly and methodically worked through a variety of issues in weekly sessions. We have had the support of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service throughout, and hope to achieve a contract for the union members to vote on this fall.
As always, hoping to see you in the aisles!
By Sabine Rhyne, General Manager