By Jordan Strickler
In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, United States consumers, businesses and government entities spent an average of $137.4 billion per month on food, according to the USDA. However, this reversed course earlier this year after the coronavirus epidemic forced consumers to change their spending habits. By April, that number had dropped to $105 billion, in part as spending at restaurants, school cafeterias, sports venues and other eating places dropped to $36 billion.
Despite the increasing growth as people began to leave their houses, the uptick in monthly sales at grocery stores, supercenters, convenience stores and other retailers compared with last year were not enough to compensate for the lower spending at food-away-from-home establishments. However, a light began to emerge in May and June, as consumer purchases on food-away-from-home rebounded along with total food sales, partially due to stimulus checks, though this still remained below 2019 spending in those months.
But just as these numbers were beginning to look better, consumer dollars spent on food reversed course as the $600 in weekly unemployment benefits expired. President Donald Trump signed an executive order in August which would have provided recipients with an extra $400 per week, but the program has run into delays as it requires states to reconfigure their unemployment systems and chip in $100 per person. Thus far, only three states are distributing funds.
According to data from the IRI CPG Demand Index, sales growth of frozen dinners averaged approximately 9 percent for the three weeks ended August 16, compared with around 17 percent for the previous two weeks. Cereal sales, meanwhile, averaged a 2 percent increase for the three weeks ended August 16, compared with a 6 percent average growth the prior two weeks. The data includes online and in-store sales at traditional grocers, dollar stores, mass retailers including Walmart, and club stores, but does not include convenience stores.
The IRI report goes on to state that grocery prices were consistent with the weeks prior, and that restaurant dining held steady during that time, indicating that neither was a significant factor in the slowed grocery spending, “further evidence that the halted unemployment stimulus was a driving factor.”