Online Food Sales Trend Skyrockets Amid Pandemic

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Online grocery sales were already on the rise prior to the pandemic, with projections suggesting that the number of U.S. consumers buying groceries online could triple in less than 10 years.

Enter COVID-19 and those 10-year projections were blown out of the water in less than a month. Instead of reaching for products on grocery store shelves, consumers are reaching for their mobile devices in staggering numbers. Online grocery orders with one popular shopping app, Instacart, were 10 times higher than usual from mid-February through March, with some major cities seeing 20 times more orders. What’s more, one survey found that 42% were first-time online grocery shoppers. 

Whether the current shift in online grocery shopping remains permanent is yet to be seen. Regardless, there are major challenges for food manufacturers and retail grocers that go beyond the public health protocols established by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Let’s take a look at three problematic concerns, as well as some solutions.

Distribution and Shipping

The role that a food and beverage manufacturer plays in online grocery sales is vital. When items leave a manufacturer’s facility, they’re typically transported in a somewhat controlled environment until they reach their intended destination. Ensuring ingredient stability throughout the distribution process is somewhat predictable. For items sold in the online grocery market, however, shipping methods, carriers, environmental factors, weather conditions, geographic areas and the duration of time it takes to get from point A to point B can vary widely.

Ingredients such as milk, butter, cream and eggs may not be suitable for the environmental conditions that products could undergo during an online sales cycle and distribution. Using alternative ingredients that are heat and acid stable, as well as freeze-thaw stable is critical in these circumstances to reduce viscosity loss, poor textures and off flavors.

A major issue that could result in less demand from consumers over time is the ability for grocers to offer a great online shopping experience from checkout until items show up on a customer’s doorstep. Some major retailers have already been unable to guarantee grocery delivery for several days due to increased demand.

Extending Shelf Life

Consumers are not only placing online orders for boxed or canned goods; they’re also adding fresh foods and frozen goods to their online shopping carts. Some services are going to great lengths to minimize spoilage and ensure the products they sell arrive as fresh as possible through the use of insulated thermal liners, refrigerants and special packaging to maintain appropriate temperatures during transit. Local grocery stores and delivery services may not always have these measures and protocols in place, however.

RELATED: All-Natural Shelf-Stable Alternative to Fresh Yogurt

The longer a product stays fresh, the more likely it could be sold online and the more likely it will reach a wider consumer base. Production in powdered form inherently prolongs the shelf life of ingredients compared to using fresh dairy and eggs. For food manufacturers, the use of functional whey protein should be considered as a cost-effective and consumer-friendly replacement in various applications, including dressings, soups, baked goods, refrigerated dips, snacks and frozen entrees.

Keeping Labels Clean

Compounding the difficulty for food manufacturers is the clean label movement. Some studies suggest there’s been a downward shift in consumer preferences for healthy food options, while another from Datassentials indicates a 25% uptick in eating better-for-you food products during the pandemic. The types of clean-label foods, however, have shifted. 

Comfort foods, snacks and indulgent treats are all being reported as go-to options. As consumers stock their pantries, adding health claims to these types of foods and creating clean-label formulas with longer shelf lives is more important than ever. While some powdered agents may improve ingredient stability and extend the shelf life of a product, many contain artificial or chemical-sounding preservatives or additives which don’t meet with the approval of most consumers. 

Consider an all-natural solution such as Grande Bravo® functional whey protein — an easily recognizable and trusted ingredient that is a cost-effective alternative to high cost dairy and eggs. Its ability to maintain the integrity, structure and flavors of various applications is unrivaled among commodity whey products. And because it’s produced in America’s Heartland, food and beverage companies can be assured of its safety, sustainability and availability as part of a reliable ingredient supply chain.

Manufacturers will need to proactively evaluate their ingredient lists to make sure their products can meet the challenges of increasing online food sales if they want to maintain and grow market share. Check out our guide to optimizing your ingredient supply chain below. And, if you’d like to talk with one of our expert food scientists about how incorporating Grande Bravo or one of our other all-natural ingredient solutions into your formulation can help, reach out today.

Three Ways to Optimize Your Supply Chain