Grocery Shoppers Shift to Smaller Stores Amid Coronavirus

Storekeepers Francisco Ponce and Angel Lorente at Supermarket Morente, their small food store in the Spanish town of Utiel. PHOTO: FRANCISCO PONCE

Storekeepers Francisco Ponce and Angel Lorente thought the coronavirus lockdown would decimate their livelihood in the Spanish town of Utiel, but instead they found a growing stream of steady business.

“During the coronavirus lockdown, our sales doubled,” said Mr. Ponce, who together with his partner, Mr. Lorente, owns a small food store called Supermarket Morente.

The pair were the store’s only two employees until the coronavirus paralyzed Spain. Then they needed to hire two extra workers to keep up with the increase in orders.

As the pandemic hit Europe and lockdowns were imposed, grocery shopping was one of the few unavoidable economic activities. But fear of contagion led to changes in behavior, with shoppers seeking what they considered safer ways to buy essentials. Despite the end of the lockdown, some of these changes, such as online shopping and a preference for smaller shops and outdoor markets, are likely here to stay.

In general, consumer behavior isn’t easily changed. It takes discipline or an extreme external shock, said Alyssa Gammoudy, a credit analyst at ING covering consumer goods.

“The pandemic followed by a global lockdown might be such a shock,” she said.

The capacity of Supermarket Morente was restricted to three people for a time and queues of customers formed outside.

For those who didn’t want to wait, Mr. Ponce and Mr. Lorente took orders by phone or shopping lists via WhatsApp for home delivery. They were working seven days a week and finished work some nights at 11 p.m.

“We gained many new clients. People discovered how convenient this service is and got used to it,” Mr. Ponce said.

Despite the easing of restrictions, sales remain 30% above the level before the pandemic, Mr. Ponce says. He expects this will hold.

“It was a big opportunity for small businesses like ours,” Mr. Ponce said.

His experience is reflected in Spain’s Barometer of the Center of Sociological Investigations, published in May, which shows 12% of Spanish consumers shopped at small grocery stores before coronavirus, but that grew to 19% during the lockdown.

“This was an opportunity to make small business known,” said Pedro Campo, president of the Spanish Commerce Confederation. The association is now focused on retaining these new customers.

According to Mr. Campo, the crisis also accelerated the transition to online sales. A study by consulting firm Oliver Wyman shows that online grocery shopping more than doubled during the quarantine.

“The ‘stay-at-home’ policy led to an unprecedented surge in online grocery shopping,” said Ms. Gammoudy at ING.

The group that stands out is people above 50. Being considered part of the so called high-risk category, they had a good reason to try online grocery shopping.

Normally, the retention rate of first time online shoppers is around 60%, Ms. Gammoudy said. What is most interesting here is that growth is across all demographics, with the above 50 group leading, she added.

In Villaverde, on the outskirts of Madrid, online sales allowed butcher shop Morego to at least break even during the months of the lockdown.

Sales to restaurants represent 60% of revenues of Morego, a wholesaler that offers cheese, eggs, meat and sausages in a small store. Due to restaurant closures, many wholesalers like Morego couldn’t sell their products, threatening them with lost revenues.

Morego owner Francisco Moreno Arrones decided to start online sales and began offering home delivery. Revenue still went down by half, but he was able to sustain his business.

“I’m happy with that, taking into account the general economic situation,” Mr. Moreno said.

Sales in food markets and outside food stands in Germany rose by a price-adjusted 8.2% in February on year, posting a higher sales increase in February than retail trade as a whole, which rose 6.4%, according to data from German statistics office Destatis.

“A possible reason for this above-average increase could be that consumers suspect that there is a lower risk of infection at stalls and markets, as the majority of the shopping there takes place outdoors,” Destatis said.

Germany implemented strict social-distancing measures on March 22, but with lockdowns implemented in Italy earlier, Germans had already increased consumption in February. However, after the hoarding effect, the trend didn’t continue. Destatis data shows turnover at food markets and outside food stands fell 5.0% in March and in April there was an increase of 1.1%.

The outbreak of the coronavirus also led to a significant increase in demand for online supermarket services in Germany.

“E-commerce hadn’t played a role in food products so far, but with coronavirus there was a boom,” said Lars Hofacker, e-commerce expert at German retail institute EHI.

Mr. Hofacker notes the success of pickup services at supermarkets. Clients can order and pay online and go to the supermarket to collect their ready-to-take-home order.

These services were strongly overloaded, Mr. Hofacker said, explaining that it is a safer option for the population more at risk due to the virus as it is a contactless option.

“It was a unique opportunity to show consumers an interesting alternative,” Mr. Hofacker said, adding that the fact that these services were offered free of charge or for a small fee made them more appealing to the consumers.

Another popular service in Germany during the lockdown was “Abokisten,” baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables delivered once a week by subscription.

“During the lockdown the servers were crashing all the time because so many people were trying to switch to getting fresh and local products delivered to their home,” Sophie Nehrer said, a consumer living in Frankfurt.

The trends of moving toward purchasing organic products and supporting local businesses were already under way, but they were accelerated by the pandemic, Ms. Gammoudy said.

In Rome, long queues formed at the door of the big supermarkets. Some were scared of the concentration of people and others just didn’t want to wait, says Josh Ling, an Australian living in the Testaccio neighborhood in Rome.

“I think that a lot of the small sellers of fruits and vegetables tended to get a lot more business,” said Mr. Ling.

Anna Paula Bezoya, who works at the World Food Programme in Rome, also preferred small stores to buy fruit and vegetables.

“It’s not because I was scared of the virus, but since the lockdown started I wanted to support small businesses,” she said.

Ms. Bezoya also ordered cheese and meat every week to be home delivered from Masto, a restaurant in Testaccio. During the lockdown, this traditional restaurant was closed but decided to offer home-delivery services of some products.

“Home delivery sales weren’t enough to balance the losses from the restaurant, but we made some new clients and we will continue with home delivery to keep their loyalty,” said Emiliano Pacifico, owner of Masto.

“The retention of new customers will highly depend on the ability of food retailers to continue to connect to them post-pandemic,” Ms. Gammoudy at ING said.

Write to Maria Martinez at