The Pandemic Grocery Store: Impacts on Food and Consumer Culture

Online Ordering, Price Hikes, Rise in Plastics, and More

Man pushing a shopping cart wearing a face mask

fStop / Getty Images

Many consumers will remember 2020 as the year many donned makeshift hazmat suits to pick up bread and milk. Others will mark it as the year of the great toilet paper scarcity. Covid-19 upended many aspects of our lives, but none so ubiquitous as grocery shopping. No shopper or store was exempt from the newfound fear of catching the rapidly spreading virus and some experts believe this pandemic will have long-lasting impacts on the way we shop as well as eat.

For grocery store and food service workers, it will be the time they put their lives on the line for their communities. Many will simply remember the long, spaced-out lines that wrapped around buildings with hand sanitizer around every corner.

And for other consumers, especially those of us who once loved leisurely grocery shopping trips, it will be remembered as the time that grocery stores became the one and only outing into the world each week. As day to day life inches towards normalcy, looking back on a year of grocery shopping can help us better understand the ways Covid-19 will continue to impact our food and consumer culture for years to come.

Pandemics Past (and Future)

It's easy to compare the world's response to Covid-19 to the most recent widespread infectious disease event in history, but it's important to remember how much the world has, and hasn't, changed, especially in regards to procuring food. 

Similar to the scale and scope of the current Covid-19 pandemic, the 1918-1919 influenza (commonly called the Spanish flu) coincided with the end of World War I as well as global economic turmoil. Without the various social safety nets that benefit parts of the labor force today, many early 20th century breadwinners were forced to report to work despite the threat of disease. While schools, churches, and other group gatherings were canceled, pharmacies and food shops remained open, much like the current pandemic. Unlike today, however, restaurants in large, dense cities thrived due to the need to feed people who lived in dwellings without access to a kitchen. For those who could cook in their homes, grocery stores were a lifeline. 

A group of nurses wearing face maks

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

At the beginning of the 20th century, grocery stores looked very different compared to the sprawling supermarkets we know. Stores were smaller and shoppers relied on clerks to fetch items from behind the counter to fill personalized grocery orders. That all changed in 1916, just a few years before the global pandemic, after the first self-service grocery store called Piggly Wiggly opened in Memphis, Tennessee. Just like today, shoppers found and selected their own products throughout the shop and brought them to the till to pay. The self-service concept took off and swiftly became the cheaper, favored model of grocery stores across the nation.

Now, a hundred years later during another global pandemic, this personalized, curbside-friendly model of grocery shopping is once again in demand as consumers fear the risks of contaminated carts and sharing tight aisles. This method of shopping, much like its predecessor, carries significant socioeconomic implications, only this time it requires digital access to smart phones or computers, literacy in terms of navigating befuddling apps, financial flexibility to pay online order fees and/or delivery tips, and the ability to use remote transaction methods at all (most systems still cannot process food stamps). Despite being epidemiologist approved, these methods of grocery shopping still have room for improvement. 

Sold-Out Signs and Symptoms 

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, health organizations around the world issued guidelines and safety practices for grocery shopping. For months, the recommendations suggested consumers limit their grocery trips, purchasing enough supplies for 2 or more weeks and wiping down each item with a germ-killing solution. As scientists learned more about how the virus spread, the strict disinfection routine slowly disappeared, replaced with redoubled emphasis on mask-wearing and hand-washing. 

Grocery store merchandise also experienced significant change as supply chains and manufacturing dealt with the impacts of Covid-19. A lack of workers resulted in slowed production lines across a range of every-day grocery store products, and delivery and distribution faced similar troubles. Compounded with consumer hoarding, grocery stores simply couldn't keep some high-demand items-- such as toilet paper, cleaning supplies, pasta, and shelf-stable prepared foods-- in stock.

Some stores enforced rations on things like hand sanitizer, paper towels, and certain dry goods. Others simply posted signs apologizing for missing products with no details of when they might return. Across the world, food prices rose 75% above average in the United States alone as global trade slowed.

An empty shelf in a story

Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images

A year into the pandemic and grocery stores continue to follow the scientific guidelines of social distancing. Some chains put in place additional rules asking guests to follow single-direction aisles, limiting hours or denoting special shopping times for the elderly, prohibiting the use of shopper's reusable bags brought from home, and advising consumers to refrain from packing up their own items.

How long these safety precautions remain will depend upon both scientific health advice as well as the cooperation of happy consumers. 

Frontline Essential Workers

As we look back on the changes Covid-19 brought to the grocery store, we must also unpack the role of the grocery store worker during the pandemic. Often overlooked in society, grocery store workers and food service employees were lauded for their efforts to keep people fed and supplied throughout the darkest months of the recent global pandemic. To the point the CDC eventually designated these groups as essential-workers alongside firefighters and public transit workers under national vaccination guidelines. 

While most stores retrofitted check-out lanes with plastic and plexiglass barriers to help prevent the spread of disease, introducing other Covid-era safety features for their staff—many grocery store workers faced numerous forms of backlash and disrespect from shoppers. Cases of verbal and at times physical aggression quickly became a daily occurrence after grocery stores ran out of pantry staples or enforced mask requirements.  

"Many workers continue to fight for meaningful change that would ultimately make grocery store employment a safe and profitable option both in and out of global pandemics."

Looking to the near future, many workers continue to fight for meaningful change that would ultimately make grocery store employment a safe and profitable option both in and out of global pandemics. These changes include paying a living wage, providing paid sick-leave and job security, as well as the possibility of hazard pay should another pandemic or similarly dangerous working situation occur. 

The Grocery Store of Tomorrow

ordering groceries

sv_sunny / Getty Images

While complete overhauls of grocery store labor practices and full-service shopping methods are still in flux, many aspects of grocery shopping influenced by or started during the pandemic are likely here to stay. With rapidly evolving and cheaper technology, online grocery orders have the potential to become the norm and ultimately might be beneficial to house-bound individuals or busy workers.

On the other hand, concern over contamination resulted in a false sense of security in single-use plastics—from disposable cups to packaged produce—which will likely continue until the pandemic subsides.  Perhaps the most significant change will be a better understanding of the global market and how reliant consumers can become on foods and products flown halfway around the world.

If nothing else, we will all learn to better appreciate the luxury of toilet paper.

Article Sources
The Spruce Eats uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. Leung, J., Chung, J. Y. C., Tisdale, C., Chiu, V., Lim, C. C. W., & Chan, G. (2021). Anxiety and panic buying behaviour during covid-19 pandemic-a qualitative analysis of toilet paper hoarding contents on twitter. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health18(3).

  5. Usda ers—Retail food price inflation in 2020 outpaced historical average by 75 percent. (n.d.).

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  7. COVID-19 has resurrected single-use plastics. Are they here to stay? (2020, July 14). PBS NewsHour.