Background

“In addition to online shopping, farm shops have also enjoyed a real boom”

Normally we humans struggle to change our habits unless a crisis forces us to do so, as is happening at the moment. The exceptional situation brought about by the coronavirus pandemic has had a profound effect on our everyday lives, including how we meet our basic need for food. Christine Schäfer, a researcher at the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI), explains in an interview which factors were involved and which trends are emerging.

Inari Kirchhofer

Christine Schäfer, MSc BA, is a researcher at the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI). She analyses social, economic and technological changes with a special focus on food, consumption and trade. Copyright: Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute (GDI) / Sandra Blaser

During the coronavirus crisis, online food purchases increased enormously and have barely fallen since then. What’s happened?

We have been observing a shift towards online purchasing for some time, but the coronavirus crisis has accelerated it. Online retailers have gained many new customers – people who were ordering food online for the first time. These includes members of high-risk groups who wanted to avoid the supermarkets, for example, as well as parents caught between home office and home schooling who bought their food online as a way of saving time. The fact that the online share has remained high even since the lockdown has been eased could indicate that many customers have overcome an initial hurdle. They discovered that the quality was good – including for fresh products – or they learned to appreciate the simplicity of the process and the time savings. In turn, a new way of shopping has emerged.

Have we adopted a different approach to food since the crisis? 

Besides online shopping, farm shops have also enjoyed a real boom. More people have begun going directly to regional producers to buy their food and experience at first hand where it comes from. In addition, short-time working and the loss of other activities meant more people had the time and energy to become producers themselves. Gardening, baking, cooking, pickling and trying out new recipes suddenly became very popular. Healthy food gained in importance but comfort foods also played a major role. The external threat posed by the crisis increased people’s need for comfort and security, and many found this in an intense focus on their food.

Trips to restaurants meet our basic needs for food and social contact while simultaneously adding variety to our lives. What happened in this regard during lockdown?

We had to do without our usual social contact for a considerable period of time. This was probably most difficult for people living on their own. Although virtual coffee breaks and drinks did make up for the loss to a certain extent, it goes without saying that they cannot replace direct interpersonal interaction.

We can now have everything sent to our homes at the click of a mouse: from basic foods to ingredients for a multi-course meal to ready-to-eat dishes. Will we soon begin avoiding restaurants?

It’s difficult to say. We often go to restaurants for the experience or because of the aforementioned social aspects. In my opinion, it’s more likely that online services will replace home-cooked meals for people who have no time or desire to cook for themselves. The economic situation is also important here. More people have to be careful with their money due to the crisis and this makes them less likely to visit restaurants.  

Have you observed any other food trends? Yes, in Japan you can already find apartments without kitchens. 

Kitchens are indeed becoming smaller in big conurbations in countries like Japan and the US. Two years ago, I saw how limited the range of foods on offer in the center of Tokyo is. It was practically impossible to find a “normal” supermarket – just various convenience stores and exclusive, high-priced food departments in department stores. This ultimately makes eating out at restaurants cheaper than cooking yourself. I doubt it will come to that in Switzerland as the country doesn’t have enough large conurbations. What is becoming more important in our restaurant scene is aesthetics, however. “Instagrammability” is becoming a key consideration both in the interior design of restaurants and the presentation of dishes – after all, social media is a key marketing tool.

How do we actually decide what to eat?

That’s a very individual matter that depends on many different factors. Of course time and money have a role to play, but so do personal taste and health. Some people follow specific diets or have certain nutritional habits, or they might be training for a marathon, for example. Availability is also key. Sometimes we just have to eat what is there.  

Switching perspectives, where are the opportunities in the online food sector? 

In some cases, restaurants that had to close because of the crisis implemented creative, brave solutions to ensure that they could generate at least a little money. Some restaurant owners have begun selling their meals and other products online. Even though it may not have been worthwhile for them financially, they viewed it as an investment in their brand. By offering delivery services, other restaurants have been able to expand their customer base and appeal to people who would not ordinarily be in their target group. It’s a question of finding your niche in the highly competitive delivery market. 

Do you buy food online yourself? 

Very rarely. We live in a central location and have many shops close by. The only exception is our wine cellar. If we can’t go directly to the producers, we shop online instead. This also saves us all the hard work of carrying what we’ve bought.

Hungry for some deeper insights into food?

By the year 2050, the earth will have to feed ten billion people. How will this be possible?

According to the European Food Trends Report 2019 “Hacking Food: Redefining What We Eat”, a sweeping process of technologization is required. Click here to go to the study.

written by

Inari Kirchhofer