What Americans Are Really Shopping for During the Pandemic

Pandemic Purchases, Revealed


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Pandemic Purchases, Revealed

Pass the Cookies

The coronavirus’ upending of life as we know it was perhaps most immediately apparent in our shopping and consumption habits. Recent reports from Statista shine a light on what Americans are suddenly craving and snatching off shelves — it goes way beyond toilet paper — and what we’ve all but abandoned as we hunker down for the duration, with 54% stockpiling two weeks of food at a time, followed by 20% stockpiling one week of food supplies and 19% keeping three to four weeks on hand, according to the data analytics company IRI.

Here’s a closer look at some of the winners and losers, with all findings from early March, compared with last year, except where mentioned otherwise.

Related: Is Your State Doing Enough to Combat the Coronavirus?


Up: Cannabis

Chalk it up to increased stress and anxiety, or having more time on our hands. Or don’t bother looking for any reason. There’s been an eye-popping 42% increase in legal cannabis sales among Gen Z, according to Headset, an industry analytics provider. The increase was only slightly less dramatic among Gen Xers, at 34.5%. Millennials, ever diligent and busy saving the world, came in third here, with increased cannabis sales of 29%. Sales actually decreased 2% among the boomer generation — but they may be the smartest ones, since some experts believe smoking pot even occasionally raises the risk of Covid-19 complications.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images North America

Up: Cookies

No surprise Americans are craving comfort food and snacks right now (we’re not going to say it’s cannabis-related snacking), and the most popular goodies to grab are cookies. Nielsen data show that sales of cookie variety packs rose more than 20% compared with a year earlier.

Packaged Food and Beverages
David Ryder/Getty Images News/Getty Images North America

Up: Snacks

Salty snacks saw a 15% uptick in sales, according to Nielsen, followed by cheese snacks, which saw 11.5% growth year over year. Pita chips registered a 6.1% increase. Who says we’re stress eating? We’re totally stress eating — and assuming no one’s going to be seeing us for a while, anyway.

Fresh Fruit
Kyryl Gorlov/istockphoto

Down: Celery and Other Fresh Produce

The coronavirus hasn’t done celery any favors. For some reason, sales plummeted more than any other vegetable highlighted in the Nielsen numbers, dropping about 19% compared with a year earlier. Apples suffered a 3.2% drop. Did America lose faith in its apple-a-day prescription?

Toilet Paper

Up: Toilet Paper

Toilet paper saw a nationwide sales increase of 60%, according to Nielsen. But the reason you can’t find toilet paper in stores has more to do with the supply chain catching up with buying patterns — including that workplaces stock different kinds of toilet paper than now-remote employees buy for home use — than with an actual problem producing the stuff.  

Red Wine

Up: Packaged Food and Booze

Nationwide sales of packaged foods and beverages shot up 10%, based on a report by IRI in partnership with the consulting firm BCG. Sales of alcohol were just behind, at 9%. Sales of baby food increased only 5%, however.

Mixing Different Cleaners

Up: Cleaning Products

No surprise, sales of cleaning products have soared. Aerosol disinfectant sales shot up a whopping 385%, followed by bath and shower wipes, which saw 180% growth in sales, according to Nielsen’s research. Rounding out the top three is multipurpose cleaners, for which there was a 148% increase in sales.

Hand Sanitizer
How They Looked
Andrei Stanescu/istockphoto

Up: Frozen Meat Substitutes

The top food in customer growth? Frozen and refrigerated meat substitutes, which saw a 29% increase in IRI’s research. (That’s on top of growth from 2019, when plant-based meat grew 10%, pulling ahead of tofu and tempeh products with a boost from publicity about the Impossible Burger and its competitors.)

Deals Requiring Multiples

Up: Milk Substitutes

As Americans practice social distancing and isolating at home, they’re still making plenty of trips to the store to stock up on milk substitutes. When IRI looked at the change in grocery and drugstore product trips linked to coronavirus, it discovered a 92% year-over-year increase for milk substitutes — that’s more than for hand sanitizers. What else had us braving the pandemic? Ear care products (a 40% increase in trips) and energy drinks (a 33% increase).

Books and Magazines

Headed Down: Books and Magazines

Despite the spending increases for things such as groceries and household supplies, consumers responding to a McKinsey & Co. survey said they plan to spend less on nearly every other product category. Of course, out-of-home entertainment will suffer, with a net decline of 74% expected in the two weeks following the survey, conducted March 30 to April 5. But perhaps surprisingly, as people hunker down at home, spending on books, magazines, and newspapers was expected to decline by about 28% overall.

Order Takeout Instead

Headed Down: Takeout and Delivery

Another surprise from the forward-looking McKinsey survey: Consumers were expecting to cut back on takeout and delivery food in the coming weeks, to the tune of 20%. Of course, that’s nothing compared with anticipated declines of 50% for quick-service restaurants and 78% for restaurants overall.


Headed Down: Tobacco

Americans who smoke might be expected to turn to it in times of stress, just as others turn to food, and investment bank Piper Sandler reported some signs of cigarette hoarding. But overall, consumers responding to the McKinsey survey said they intended to spend less on tobacco and smoking products, for a net decline of 21%. The World Health Organization would approve: “Smokers are likely to be more vulnerable to COVID-19, as the act of smoking means that fingers — and possibly contaminated cigarettes — are in contact with lips, which increases the possibility of transmission of virus from hand to mouth,” the organization says. “Smokers may also already have lung disease or reduced lung capacity, which would greatly increase risk of serious illness.”