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Changes in consumption habits during quarantine may remain after social isolation

During the quarantine imposed by covid-19, Brazilian consumers have faced changes triggered specially by concerns related to health, safety and finances. Some of the changes verified in this period are likely to continue after the social isolation period, particularly referring to food habits.


Main changes observed during quarantine are the increase of home-cooked meals (which consequently increases food purchases in the traditional retail market), the search for quick meals and convenience (favoring deliveries) and for food that brings pleasure, as a “reward” for the stress that comes with isolation.


These changes influence directly the fruit and vegetable market, favoring retail sales, but limiting food service trades – this segment registered a decrease of trades, and most sales are focused on fast food.


According to data from Nielsen, trades of fruits and vegetables increased in the first semester of 2020 compared to the same period of 2019. Concerning salad items and vegetables, sales soared 211% and for fruits, the increase was 9.2%. On the other hand, tuber and root trades downed 43.5% in the same comparison.  


As for restaurants and bars, although there are no specific data for fruits and vegetables, the total turnover decreased 60.4%, on average, comparing the period from March to July against the one before the pandemics.


The major impact of food service decrease on the sector of fruits and vegetables refers to per-kilo restaurants, because they have large variety and quantity of these products, specially vegetables – fruits are also offered, but with less options, in deserts and juices. In addition to that, this type of restaurant may have more difficulties when activities effectively return, due to the higher need to sanitize utensils.


Along with these changes, it is important to mention that economic restrictions also affect the sector. According to the Focus Survey, released by Brazil’s Central Bank on August 21, 2020, the per capita GDP may decrease 5.5% this year, and, considering data from the most recent Consumer Expenditure Survey (POF, in Portuguese), 2017-18, for every 1% decrease in Brazilians’ income, the consumption of fruits and vegetable moves down 0.573% (figures by Vaz and Hoffmann, 2019, based on income-elasticity). Therefore, if income reduces 5.5% in 2020, the consumption of these products at home is likely to shrink roughly 3%.


Not all Brazilians were affected the same way. Nielsen divides consumers in two main profiles: relatively non-affected and those who had both income and expenses reduced. While the first group is able to keep its buying pattern (including having experiences they previously had at restaurants at home), the second group has more difficulties, needing to prioritize essential expenses.


This difference is clear in the fruit and vegetable sector. Premium greengrocers have registered an increase in their turnover with fresh products. At the same time, sales at Ceasas (supply centers – wholesale market), which have small and medium-sized supermarkets, grocery stores and restaurants as main clients, have dropped.


As a result, consumers may continue cautious in the coming months, both referring to health and economy. The social isolation period is practically over and, even with the consolidation of social distancing, with more flexible measures for restaurants and bars, Brazilians are likely to keep some habits while the pandemics continue: higher frequency of home-cooked meals, selective purchases, gradual return of food service and hotel (they are important consumers of some fruits, such as papaya and melon) activities and continuity of online shopping, aiming healthier food habits.


In general, research indicates that healthier habits are related to the regular consumption of fruits and vegetables. The major challenge for the sector is to transform the paradigm that fruits and vegetables are good for health into sales.

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