You don’t have to be an expert in, well anything, to know 2020 was a year like no other.

Words like “unprecedented” were heard on a daily basis. Families and loved ones were kept apart. Social distancing and personal protective equipment complicated a simple trip to a store. And since the pandemic came on suddenly, consumers had to discover ways to adapt after the fact versus making preparations. Given the record-breaking daily new cases at the end of this year and the lack of a vaccine, it appears COVID-19 will be with us well into 2021.

At NPD, we can’t forecast the spread of the virus but we’re keeping a close eye on the impact of The COVID-19 surge and election outcome. Look for the following overarching consumer behaviors in 2021: A New Normalization.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing shelter-in-place orders came on suddenly, consumers quickly had to adapt to a new home life, including home schooling children, making more meals in their homes, and relying heavily on digital means to obtain foods and beverages.

To cope with these new in-home stressors, consumers stocked up on staples like bread, eggs, and cereal, as well as household items like toilet paper and paper towels, resulting in supply shortages. Consumers also took a break from nutrition as stress eating led to increased consumption of sweet baked goods, ice cream, alcohol, and other indulgent categories.

Now that consumers have had time to adapt to life under restrictions, panic buying has ceased but using digital sources for both restaurants and retail remain elevated compared to pre-pandemic times. We should see consumers settling into this new normal as it helps them remain distanced while saving them trips to the store given the extra in-home responsibilities they now face. It’s important to note that many consumers who used digital ordering during the pandemic were solely offline users pre-COVID but now realize the convenience online ordering provides—more evidence we’ll see online remain elevated into 2021.

Nutrition took a back seat this year because consumers were trying to figure out how to handle one day from the next and planning for health became more of luxury for many. Now that consumers have found new routines and more ways to pass time, we should also see stress eating relax as consumers are settling into their new realities. Look for a return to morning snacking and reduced consumption of indulgent categories.


Convenience Elevated

What won’t go away are the appliances consumers purchased to make in-home foods easier to prepare.

Air fryers and multi-cookers, for example, posted double-digit dollar sales growth over the last year meaning many households now have these appliances on hand. According to NPD’s Kitchen Audit, 37% of homes have air fryers and 26% have multi cookers as of July 2020, and as more consumers purchased them since March, usage increased. They were purchased for convenience and consumers will continue to expect that. Look for more products that are specifically made for these appliances or existing products that now show cooking instructions that include them as well.


A Longing for Experiences

Before the pandemic, consumers were increasingly shifting their dollars toward experiences like travel, movies, and entertainment, but that nearly came to a grinding halt. Consumers are feeling empty spaces in their lives normally filled with activities that provided memories and entertained the family.

Additionally, Thanksgiving will bring fewer families together this year as 67% of consumers expect to remain in their own homes, up from 58% in 2019. Restaurants can provide some of the experiences they miss but many areas of the U.S. still have them under tight restrictions. As more municipalities eased restrictions for on-premise dining in 2020, there was an immediate increase in restaurant transactions. Consumers will be looking for the first signs they can safely return to restaurants in their neighborhoods throughout 2021 as they already have this year.

Entertainment is still top of mind as consumers are staying home more, whether that means finding new ways to connect with others or keeping themselves and their families busy. They have stocked up on meal preparation devices, connected home devices, and bakeware and will be ready for in-person entertainment when they get the green light.

In the absence of other forms of entertainment, look for consumers to make up the difference by grilling outside their homes and engaging in more cooking activities that include multiple family members. We should also see more digitally delivered restaurant meals. As restaurants try to recapture lost traffic they will likely offer in-home food preparation in the form of meal kits or curated specialty grocery items.