The global COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an unprecedented economic shock in current times. Subsequent shelter-at-home orders and the shutdown of restaurants and other traditional marketing channels resulted in an unprecedented external shock to seafood markets. Here are the results from research on seafood consumer shopping behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The public health crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic led to the shutdown of many restaurants, with an estimated 15% of U.S. restaurants either closed permanently or were likely to after just the first 3 weeks of shutdowns (National Restaurant Association, 2020). The magnitude of business closures and employee layoffs resulted in an unparalleled shock to the U.S. economy.
The combined effect of business closures and reduced discretionary spending by consumers had severe negative economic effects. Economic relief and stimulus packages likely ameliorated such effects to some degree, but how long of a recovery period would ensue was unknown.
External economic shocks and economic downturns have occurred previously, but the effects on consumer behaviors during such times have generally not been well studied. Consumer behaviors were found to change during economic recessions (Latham and Braun, 2010), but the types of changes varied with geographic and demographic differences, by product, and with the nature of the crisis.
Fewer studies have followed consumer spending from the crisis through the recovery period. In addition to changes in spending, consumer attitudes and preferences also change during economic crises.
Studies of the effects on seafood consumption during external economic shocks have focused largely on supply shocks. However, it appears that little attention has been paid to changes in seafood consumer preferences and purchasing patterns during times of severe economic shocks.
The 2020–2021 pandemic, subsequent shelter-at-home orders, and shutdown of restaurants and other traditional marketing channels resulted in an unprecedented external shock to seafood markets. A clear understanding of changes in consumer purchasing behaviors for at home and away from-home consumption is necessary to provide guidance for seafood suppliers.
Here is presented a consumer research that gathers market information on changes in how, when, and where consumers purchased seafood during the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic public health emergency.
An online survey of seafood consumers was designed and administered using the Qualtrics platform. A screener question was used to identify seafood consumers. The study design targeted 100 completed responses from each of 20 market areas in the US. The questionnaire elicited information for 2019 and 2020 on seafood consumption at-home and away from-home.
Following data cleaning, the total number of usable responses was 1908. This study presents the results of a descriptive analysis of seafood purchasing behaviors reported by respondents for 2019 and following the onset of the pandemic in 2020.
General seafood consumption trends following the onset of the pandemic
Half (50%) of respondents reported that their consumption of fish remained the same in 2020, following the onset of the pandemic as compared to 2019. Only 19% reported that their consumption of seafood increased in 2020, and 31% of respondents reported that their consumption of seafood decreased in 2020.
Those who reported increased consumption of seafood in 2020 as compared to 2019, further responded that the primary reason for doing so was for their health (49% of those who reported increased consumption of seafood), including to boost immunity, as a good source of energy, vitamins, and minerals (Figure 1).
A variety of other, less frequently mentioned reasons included: eating at home more, needing more protein in the diet for variety and greater availability of seafood as compared to other meats, among others. Those respondents who reported decreased seafood consumption in 2020 (27%) did so primarily because of the pandemic shutdowns and not being able to eat in restaurants where they preferred to eat seafood (Figure 2).
An additional 20% reported decreased seafood consumption because of reduced income, fewer hours worked, or being laid off making seafood less affordable. Nineteen percent of those who decreased consumption of seafood, reported that seafood was less available, and another 10% that it was too expensive.
Where food was eaten or obtained
Respondents reported significantly different percentages of meals prepared at home, purchased for takeout, delivered to home as a prepared meal, and eaten away from home for 2019 and 2020 for general meals and for seafood meals (Table 1). Pre-pandemic, respondents reported preparing 60% of their meals generally, but fewer (52%) of their seafood meals at home.
After the onset of the pandemic and the shelter at-home orders, respondents reported an 11% increase in meal preparation at home generally, and a 14% increase in home preparation of seafood meals.
Away-from-home consumption frequency decreased significantly with the pandemic, as expected, for both general and seafood meals. Pre-pandemic, respondents ate more of their seafood meals away from-home than other meals, but this difference disappeared in 2020.
The frequency of takeout orders of prepared meals decreased in 2020 as compared to 2019 for both general and seafood meals, contrary to expectations, but did not differ between general and seafood meals.
Purchases for at-home preparation and consumption
Respondents reported a slight but significant decrease in the percent of groceries purchased (3%) in grocery stores following the onset of the pandemic. Approximately one-fifth of respondents reported ordering groceries online for home delivery in 2019, with a slight, but significant, increase to 29% of general food and 26% of seafood after the onset of the pandemic.
Grocery purchases from other venues were low, although shoppers purchased a greater percentage of their seafood as compared to other food from farmers’ markets and food hubs in 2019, but this difference disappeared in 2020.
The percentage of food obtained from hunting or fishing or direct visits to farms (“other” category) was also low, but that of seafood was double that of food generally in both years. Income effects on purchasing groceries for home preparation paralleled those of educational-level groups.
“Higher-income respondents purchased significantly fewer groceries from supermarkets and more online in both years than did lower-income respondents. Online seafood orders increased slightly for both income groups (4% to 5%) following the pandemic, but grocery shopping was unchanged before and after the pandemic.”
To better understand seafood purchasing behaviors, respondents who reported low frequencies of seafood purchase (less than once a month) were asked an open-ended question as to why they purchased seafood infrequently for both 2019 and 2020.
The primary reason for both years was the expense and high price of seafood (Figure 3). The second most common response was that seafood was not a preferred food that was eaten often. Following the onset of the pandemic in 2020, availability of seafood became an important factor that constrained seafood purchases, along with the COVID-related shutdowns that prevented respondents from eating seafood out in their preferred restaurants.
Clearly, understanding how consumers shopping behaviors may have changed as a result of the onset of the pandemic is of importance to seafood suppliers, including aquaculture producers and processors (Engle, 2019). Seafood consumer behaviors were found to have changed in response to the pandemic, similar to results by Latham and Braun (2010) for other external economic shocks and downturns, and also varied with demographic differences.
As expected from the shelter at home orders, at-home consumption increased significantly, while that of away-from-home consumption decreased significantly, for meals generally and for seafood. The frequency of takeout orders decreased, but no a difference was found in the frequency of home-delivered meals.
“A number of demographic differences were found in this study based on age, education, income, and gender, but there were few differences among ethnic groups. Older, lower income, less educated and female respondents were the ones who prepared more seafood dishes at home and bought more seafood to prepare at home.”
This was true before and after the onset of the pandemic. Thus, those seafood suppliers interested in increasing retail grocery sales may find greater success by tailoring advertising and messaging to the demographic groups identified as likelier to shop for seafood in supermarkets.
On the other hand, younger respondents, those with higher education and income levels, and males tended to order more groceries online, purchase more takeout meals, and order more meals online for home delivery.
These results suggest which demographic groups would be best targeted through advertising and messaging to increase seafood sales through these emerging purchasing channels. The most frequently mentioned reason for purchasing seafood for home preparation less than once a month and for not purchasing prepared fish for consumption at home was that it was too expensive and the price was too high.
National survey results documented significant differences in consumer shopping behaviors and consumption at-home and away from-home for food generally and for seafood specifically in 2020 as compared to 2019.
As expected, consumers in 2020 consumed a greater percentage of meals at home than away from home overall and for seafood. Changes in seafood shopping behaviors differed significantly by age, education, income, and gender, but not by ethnic group.
Older, female consumers with lower educational levels and lower incomes shopped more often at supermarkets and less online, whereas younger, male respondents with greater educational and income levels shopped more frequently online and less often at supermarkets and also ordered more meals for takeout and home delivery.
While the frequency of shopping generally declined with the pandemic, the expenditure per shopping trip did not, resulting in less overall spending for groceries. Seafood was purchased less frequently for takeout or for home delivery of prepared meals than other general meals because of concerns over quality, freshness, and safety (of food and of COVID spread).
This is a summarized version developed by the editorial team of Aquaculture Magazine based on the review article titled “PRE- AND POST-PANDEMIC SEAFOOD PURCHASING BEHAVIOR IN THE U.S.” developed by: Engle, C. – Engle-Stone Aquatic$ LLC, van Senten, J. – Virginia Tech, Kumar, G. – Mississippi State University, Dey, M. – Texas State University.
The original article, including tables and figures, was published on MARCH 2023, through AQUACULTURE. The full version can be accessed online through this link: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aquaculture.2023.739491.