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Coronavirus Finds: Brands That Bust Tight Budgets

By Andrew Zenyuch,
Associate Creative Director


In this climate of unpredictable economic shifts and record unemployment, consumers are getting more and more frugal with their food budgets. They’re seeking value more than ever, and changing their shopping habits and lists as a result.

So what brands are easing consumers money-conscious minds? And how can other brands jump in?

We found it’s all about comfort right now, with convenience and value as secondary drivers as to how shoppers are keeping their finances and senses in check.

Leading the way are Frozen Foods, which have gained a sustained surge in sales that’s expected to last beyond the pandemic. With consumers prioritizing convenience and budgets more than ever, sales are up for both vegetables and frozen meals.

Coronavirus Finds: Brands That Bust Tight Budgets

The frozen food aisle offers a near endless selection at a great value. That’s why brands like Lean Cuisine, Healthy Choice, Frontera, Green Giant, and Marie Calendar’s are all more popular than they have been in years.

Plus, some frozen comfort foods are helping soothe COVID-anxious minds. Nestlé is reporting that sales for DiGiorno pizza, Stouffer’s frozen meals and Hot Pockets sandwiches drove substantial growth in the first quarter.

And the appeal of Frozen Foods seems to be universal: Gen Z consumers and upper-class millennials with children have been steadily buying more frozen meals. We think these brands have a huge opportunity to gain customer loyalty by appealing to consumers’ need for convenient and comforting foods.

Comfort Foods are booming outside of frozen as well, with sweet comfort snacks at the forefront. McKee Foods, the maker of Little Debbie snacks, Sunbelt Bakery, Fieldstone Bakery, and Drake’s Cakes, has seen a significant increase in search volumes.

Nostalgia and a longing for a simpler time are attributed to this uptick. These brands offer comfort at a value, perhaps replacing trips to the ice cream shop or restaurant. Because seriously, what’s more comforting than a case of Little Debbies right now?

The need to feel “normal” and happy is driving Comfort Food snacks sales. In a custom survey, Frito-Lay found 85% of respondents are eating their favorite snacks to feel normal. A similar amount (83%) said their favorite snacks make them feel good, and 48% said their favorite snacks help them feel happy.

Salty snacks are leading the way, as IRI data found that they’re the No. 1 food item that’s contributed to sales growth at retailers since early March. Affordable brands like Lay’s, Cheetos Popcorn, and Tostitos and their private-label counterparts are what consumers are picking up to gain some sense of normalcy while remaining frugal.

Packaged foods, especially packaged comfort foods and nostalgic brands, have also seen a resurgence thanks to the value-based buyer. In decline for years as consumers turned to fresher, healthier options, their longer shelf life, easy prep and relatively low cost have consumers adding them back to their carts.

Some are even seeing sales spike at 4x their usual, like The Campbell Soup Co., makers of their namesake soups as well as Prego pasta sauce and more. Sales are also up for Kraft Heinz too. Makers of Kraft mac and cheese and Heinz ketchup, they wrote down billions in brand value last year only to see budget-conscious shoppers give them a much-needed boost.

And lastly, outside of comfort and frozen foods, Private Label brands are gaining sales while consumers shop with finances in mind. Already a major player and gaining market share year over year, sales grew by double digits in the first quarter of 2020 according to PLMA and Nielsen. Filling the gaps left by major brand’s supply issues contributed to this bump, as did consumers seeking cheaper alternatives to keep their food costs low.

Consumers are more budget-conscious than ever during as uncertainty hangs over their heads. They’re prioritizing comfort and seeking normalcy in the foods they’re prioritizing to stay within their financial means, even turning to brands they haven’t purchased in years. Brands like Lean Cuisine, Hot Pockets, and Little Debbies are seeing sales surge thanks to the comfort and value they provide.

Other brands would be wise to play up the stress-relief or nostalgia they provide. This could be done via recipes, vintage ads or call backs to comfort food favorites. Connecting this with a larger value proposition will help brands get on the list of these comfort-and-value seeking shoppers.