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Grocery sales stabilize as consumers settle into life safer at home

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer
Milk stocks the refrigerators at an Indianapolis grocery store. Previous limits that had been placed on the amounts of milk that customers could buy, in response to panic-buying, are being removed.

As the reality of the coronavirus settled across Wisconsin in March, Jen Walsh, Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin vice president of sales strategy, watched retail grocery sales numbers surge.

When there was one confirmed case of COVID-19 the beginning of March, retail grocery sales were up 5% from the same week in 2019, which "in normal times would be considered really strong growth if you didn't already know what was about to happen," Walsh explained during a webinar hosted by the Dairy Business Association on April 16.  

But once the public health emergency was declared on March 12 and the closure of schools was announced on March 13, "things suddenly got got pretty real for Wisconsinites and we saw a huge surge in retail sales at the end of that week."

Walsh said total sales increased 45% and dairy department sales increased 44% in Wisconsin compared to the same week in 2019.

The week after bars and restaurants were closed, sales surged even higher with total retail sales increases of 55% from the prior year and dairy sales increases of 65%, "truly just just really mind boggling numbers," said Walsh.

Anyone who went grocery shopping then could verify those numbers by the long lines to get in and check out and carts overflowing with goods. 

By the end of March, Walsh said retail growth began to slow as consumers probably started tapping into products they had stockpiled and were reassured that grocery stores wouldn't close. Data still showed "increases in sales that would astound retail sellers in a normal year."

By the week ending April 5, the last week of data Walsh had at the time of the webinar, sales had stabilized, but were still showing significant year over year growth.

"We should continue to see retail sales higher than your goal levels as long as restaurants are closed," Walsh said. "We know that about 20% of consumer eating occasions happen in restaurants. So with restaurants closed, consumers are substituting those meals they once ate out with meals that they're eating at home and buying the food from retail." 

The surge of unemployment will also impact retail sales, Walsh added.

With the safer at home order extended, Walsh said she will be watching to see how it affects sales in coming weeks.

Carol Spaeth-Bauer at 262-875-9490 or carol.spaeth-bauer@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at cspaethbauer or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/carol.spaethbauer.