Shoppers Are More Scared of Increasing Food Prices Than the Coronavirus, Survey Shows

Personal finance concerns have overtaken direct fears of COVID-19.

Cashier scanning products at a grocery store wearing a facemask
Photo: Hispanolistic/Getty Images

We're more than seven months into an ongoing pandemic that will undoubtedly continue into 2021. Much as the pace of the mounting death toll has ebbed and flowed since March (a cycle that seems poised to repeat itself this winter), so too has the pandemic's effects on our lives changed.

Case in point: consumer survey data shows that grocery shoppers are now less concerned about catching COVID-19 than they are about contending with higher prices amid a time of tighter household budgets.

That revelation comes from a dunnhumby Consumer Pulse Survey, which asked about both shopping habits and personal finance. Worryingly, 49 percent of the 400 Americans surveyed said that their personal finances were poor. That's an increase of 20 percent from July, shortly before the extra $600 in unemployment benefits expired. Simultaneously, the proprietary "dunnhumby Worry Index," a metric assessing how concerned shoppers are about the virus itself, is down to 24 percent here in the U.S., a 5 percent decrease from July.

While that drop in levels of consumer worry has translated to an increase in the average number of weekly shopping trips from 3.8 in March to 5.4 in the most recent survey, those shopping trips are increasingly driven by a search for good deals and low prices. A majority (58 percent) of survey respondents are shopping at stores where regular prices are low; 43 percent are specifically buying the lowest-priced products, while about a third are using coupons (36 percent) or comparison shopping online (34 percent) to figure out how they can stretch their budget further.

Part of the issue is that consumers seem unwilling to give stores the benefit of the doubt when it comes to raising prices due to pandemic factors. While the data shows they're understanding of pandemic-related precautions like social distancing or reduced hours, having to pay more (even at a time of strained supply chains and other production challenges) is where nearly three-quarters of the 37 percent of shoppers who'd noticed price increases seem to be drawing the line.

With the potential for a third wave not too far off, it's possible that fear of the virus will once again supplant our collective fear of straining the household budget. At the same time, though, the continued absence of economic relief doesn't suggest things will magically change for the millions struggling to get by. At least this time around, hopefully people won't panic buy as much.

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