In 2015, you may recall, national news outlets reported on a remarkable shift in Americans’ dining habits: For the first time ever, we spent more money eating out than we did on groceries.
Needless to say, that was no longer the case in 2020, as the pandemic and the rise of work-from-home drove people back into their own kitchens. The revival of home cooking, coupled with some periods of panic buying early on in the crisis, add up to a much bigger chunk of our paychecks spent at the supermarket.
In the Seattle metro area, the median amount spent by households on groceries per week totaled about $152 from February to August of 2020, according to survey-based data from market-research giant Nielsen. That represents an increase of 25%, or $30, from the same period in 2019, when the median amount was about $122.
The median represents the halfway point, meaning that half the households spent more, and half spent less.
The data shows that grocery spending was also up nationally in the early months of the pandemic, but by a more modest 15%. Perhaps spending shot up more in the Seattle area because we are among the highest metros for the percentage of our labor force that has shifted to work-from-home. Or maybe we hoarded more than most other places during the panic-buying phase.
According to the data, the number of Seattle-area households that spent less than $75 per week on groceries dropped from 325,000 in early 2019 to 211,000 in the same period in 2020. And the number spending more than $200 per week climbed from 444,000 to 587,000.
The Nielsen data shows that purchases are up across the grocery store aisles in Seattle, and a few items stand out. The share of households buying boxes of cereal in the past seven days shot up by 10 percentage points during the pandemic, and chips/pretzels and coffee increased in popularity nearly as much. There were also a couple of exceptions: Baby food and prepared foods both declined a bit.
National data shows that Americans, concerned about exposure to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, are actually going to the supermarket less frequently than before the pandemic, and they’re relying more on grocery delivery services or grocery pickup. But when we do go to the supermarket, we’re spending more than we used to.
The fact that we’re eating at home instead of going out to eat is only part of the story. We’re also spending more on groceries because prices have gone up. That was particularly true during the spring of 2020, when grocery prices had their biggest increase in nearly 50 years.
One report found that half of U.S. shoppers say they are spending more on groceries than they did pre-pandemic. The main reason cited was because they are eating more at home (59%), but higher prices were not far behind (52%). Another reason for spending more, which was cited by half of respondents, was that they are stocking up on items more than they used to.
Among the 12 most-frequented supermarkets in the Seattle metro area, the highest median spending was for households that had shopped at Whole Foods in the past seven days — just shy of $200. At the other end of the spectrum, households that had shopped at Safeway in the past seven days spent a median of $145 on groceries.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Whole Foods’ prices are higher (though it’s often jokingly referred to as “Whole Paycheck”). It could also reflect the spending habits of the typical shopper — and according to Nielsen, the median income of a household that shopped at Whole Foods in the Seattle area is about $94,000, compared with $74,000 for a household that shopped at Safeway. Households that shopped at Whole Foods also have a slightly larger average household size, which naturally contributes to the amount spent on groceries.
Safeway is the single most popular place to buy groceries, with nearly 900,000 households having shopped there in the past seven days. That’s about 10 times higher than the number that shopped at Whole Foods.
With the end of the pandemic in sight, and restaurants reopening, will the cooking-at-home trend abate? Many Americans say they intend to continue — they think it’s more economical than eating out, and healthier. But it’s also a lot more work, and not everybody thinks cooking is fun. One report shows 25% of Americans are tired of it.
Nearly 1,400 adults in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties responded to Nielsen’s survey about their grocery shopping habits from Feb. to Aug. last year, and nearly 1,500 adults responded for the same period in 2019.