Grocery Behavior: How It’s Changed, Will It Last

The short term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the primary focus, and with good reason. But, with states beginning to loosen restrictions and retail showing signs of a recovery, there are changes to consumer behavior that could have potentially long-lasting ramifications. With companies increasingly embracing the long term value of working from home, even if only part of the time, there are reasons to believe that many of these shifts could have staying power.

So what really changed?

When We Shop – Day of Week

Six leading grocery brands and two top wholesalers saw a significant shift away from weekend shopping. Looking at Albertsons data from March through May 2019 (Blue) and comparing it to the same period in 2020 (Red) shows a shift away from Friday, Saturday, and Sunday shopping and increases Mondays through Thursdays. 

And, this was a change felt across the board with only two discrepancies, Whole Foods seeing a slight Sunday increase and BJ’s seeing a slight Friday jump. The impact of this change is significant, as it shows that when given the opportunity, shoppers will prefer to find off-peak times to do their shopping, something that might also help grocers themselves. With the potential for more flexible working hours, the midweek grocery spike is a trend that could hold.

And however obvious, the reverse is equally true and important. Weekend visits drop as an obvious direct result, but with an added twist. Weekends are ideal times for other types of shopping and entertainment, potentially giving customers a new time of week to dive into other pursuits that could drive wider economic benefits whether it be restaurant visits, midday movies or another more experiential option.

When We Shop – Time of Day

But when we shop is also a matter of time of day, and visits clearly shifted to the morning. Eight brands saw dramatic increases in the percentage of visits taking place between 6 and 11 am. 11 am through 4 pm stayed fairly level, with the evening seeing the biggest decrease. Beyond the obvious ramifications, this data again shows consumers revealing their true preferences. It also potentially boosts services like bakeries and supports cross-shopping for brands like Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts. Costco, who saw a near doubling of morning traffic, could potentially avail itself of a range of new opportunities because of the shift.

Taking a dive into a specific example at Wegmans shows a massive jump in morning traffic with over double the percentage of visits coming between 7 and 8 am, and nearly double between 8 and 9 am. From 11 am on, visits either remain the same or decline, with the post-work rush seeing the sharpest drop. 

Publix saw a similar pattern with significant increases in morning traffic and early afternoon visits coming at the expense of visits that would normally come in the evening. While the possibility exists that there are other motivations, the shift in patterns indicates a greater desire for flexibility of when to shop.

And, with the shift to morning alongside stable afternoons, the evening was bound to see declines. Critically, evening here is defined as 4 to 9 pm. So, as to avoid overemphasizing drops in late-night traffic, which was shut down in some cases altogether. Interestingly, the move also opens up questions of whether this could impact actual purchasing patterns. For example, could the bright-eyed morning visit drive more sales for pre-planned meals at the expense of ready-made options when a consumer has already hit their limit for the day’s energy expenditures?

How We Shop – A New Mission

But we didn’t just see changes in when we shop, but also how we shop. One key consumer change seems to be a clear move to becoming more ‘mission-driven’ in shopping patterns. In March through May 7th, 2020, Kroger cross-shopping declined significantly to all brands that were in their top ten for cross-shopping in March through May 2019. Critically, all ten of these were deemed essential retail, so cross-shopping could have continued. This included a near 7% drop in cross-shopping with Walmart and a near 13% decline in cross-shopping with Target during the period. And the same pattern held true for other brands.

The clear indication here is that shoppers are more focused on getting as much done as possible with every visit. This gives added strength to traditional grocers, wholesalers, and big-box retailers and will push more niche grocers to more effectively target core audiences.

How We Shop – Visit Duration

Another major change is the length of time we’re willing to shop. All but one brand saw a significant increase in the length of the average visit. Wegmans and Trader Joe’s led the way with increases of 11.9% and 9.1% respectively, while Whole Foods saw a drop of 4.8%.

There are a few potential reasons for these changes. First, if consumers are more mission-driven in their shopping they will eschew a trip to another store for a few more minutes in the location they’re already in. Second, if consumers are able to shop when they want to, the mindset of ‘get in, get out’ may be dulled. Finally, the greater time flexibility could be impacting this space as well.

Whatever explanation strikes the truest, the ramifications are significant. If a consumer is willing to spend nearly 12% more time in a Wegmans, the likelihood of the basket size increasing significantly grows. As does the potential for other services, such as bakeries in a grocery or a Dunkin’ Donut location in Costco, to grow in value as well.


Whatever the specific lesson that one chooses to derive, it’s clear that behaviors changed in how we shop during COVID. Could these changes have been completely centered around pandemic concerns or direct consequences from greater unemployment? Potentially.

However, it’s far more likely that we received a glimpse into what shopping could look like if work/life splits were given blurrier lines. The big remaining question is whether greater levels of flexibility will last beyond the crisis. If so, significant changes to shopping patterns and therefore, grocery and wholesale performance, could be on the horizon.

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