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Analysis: America's Obsession With Junk Food

July 21st marks National Junk Food Day, a day which gives us all a special excuse to binge on our favorite salty and/or sweet guilty pleasure snacks with a little less guilt than usual.

Internet lore indicates the unofficial holiday started all of the way back in 1860 when the first fish and chips shop opened at Tommyfield Market in Oldham, England. Of course, the holiday’s unofficial origins aren't going to hold anyone back from celebrating by sinking their teeth into a glazed donut or polishing off a sleeve of Oreo cookies. And it’s not going to stop us from celebrating in our favorite way: by digging into our data to learn more about online demand for junk food.

Has online demand for junk food been on the rise? Or have Americans been cutting back? Did COVID-19 bring a huge rush on online demand? Has 2021 seen online demand drop as we’ve seen things begin to reopen across the country?

To find the answers to these questions and more, our data science team analyzed online demand for junk food starting in 2019 through the first half of 2021.

When is online demand highest for different types of junk food?

We started by examining weekly online demand for different types of junk food from January 2020 through 2021 so far. Let’s start by examining one of the most ubiquitous and classic of American snacks: chips.

Online demand for chips appears to be rather consistent throughout the year, with two notable exceptions. First, there was a major spike in online demand for chips during the height of the pandemic lockdowns in Spring 2020. As consumers flooded grocery stores and supermarkets, it seems that millions of Americans went online to stock up on chips as well.

The other interesting finding is how demand for chips fluctuates during the holidays. It seems that when it comes to the holidays, chips are an afterthought during Christmas, but a vital part of New Year’s.

Next up, we examined cookies, the sweeter yin to chip’s salty yang when it comes to prepackaged junk food favorites.

Demand for cookies also experienced a prolonged boost during lockdown, though one that wasn’t quite as strong as chips received.

Instead it’s Christmas and Valentine’s Day that appear to be the biggest times of the year for online cookie purchasing. It also looks like online demand for cookies is on the rise, as demand for cookies this Valentine’s Day absolutely dwarfed demand during the same time in 2020.

Our next junk food category? Meat. While you may not typically see meat as a major junk food, the types of meats most likely to be purchased online would certainly fall into a specific type of snack or junk food, and one we thought would be interesting to compare to the more “standard” snacks in our analysis.

Once again, COVID lockdowns drove a lot of demand for meat, a category which remains consistent throughout the year. Until Christmas, that is.

Online demand for meat during the two weeks leading up to Christmas goes up by over 120% compared to the average week during the year.

What about the real sweet tooths out there? Let’s take a look at online demand for candy:

Candy’s biggest times of the year are the ones you’d most expect: Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter. Once again, demand shot up during the early weeks of lockdown, which also happened to coincide with Easter as well.

One interesting exception in 2020, however, was Halloween. While we see a moderate lift during the end of October, it surprisingly pales in comparison to the other major candy holidays. This may be due to COVID-19 putting a damper on trick or treating and the holiday in general, but we’ll dive deeper into this later on.

For now, let’s examine our last category of junk food: baked goods (this includes items like donuts, pastries, muffins, etc.)

COVID-19 appears to have had a larger impact on demand for baked goods than any other time of year. Demand remained high throughout much of the earliest months of the pandemic before slowing to a consistent rate throughout the summer.

Christmas and Valentine’s Day also appear to drive high demand for baked goods, but primarily in the weeks just before Thanksgiving and Christmas. Demand during the weeks of the holidays themselves actually dropped quite a bit.

Out of all the major junk food staples in our analysis, it appears that soda may have experienced the most sustained lift from the pandemic. Online demand shot up right as shutdowns began and soda quickly disappeared from supermarket shelves.

Demand dropped somewhat in late April, but has remained consistently ahead of pre-pandemic levels all the way through 2021 so far.

Finally, for a more direct comparison of seasonal trends for each type of junk food, here’s a chart comparing the change in demand for each week compared to the total average for each category:

The biggest COVID boost went to chips, while candy received the next largest bump, although delayed by a few weeks (most likely due to Easter).

All types of junk foods, except for chips and soda, receive a major boost during the holidays, with meat receiving easily the largest.

Cookies and candy received equally large boosts during Valentine’s Day 2021, while candy got one of the most significant boosts in the analysis during Easter this year.

A closer look at the impact of COVID-19 on different types of junk food

The charts above show that COVID-19 had a clear and distinct impact on online demand for junk food. Each category in our analysis saw demand spike during the early weeks of the pandemic as millions of Americans began to stock up to prepare to shelter in place.

To even better understand what kind of impact COVID-19 had on online demand for junk food, we next decided to compare some of 2020’s trends against 2019. That way we could see just how much extra junk food we were all buying compared to a more “normal” year.

Most categories saw huge spikes in demand during March and April, so we started by comparing total demand in those two months during 2020 and comparing them to demand in March and April of 2019.

Demand for junk food in March and April of last year dwarfed demand during the same months in 2019. Chips got the biggest early COVID boost, with a 167% increase in demand. Demand for baked goods was a close second with a 150% increase, and meat and cookies both experienced a 135% boost.

Only candy failed to see demand increase by over 100%, but just barely. In a normal year, March and April are big candy months, and demand for the sweet stuff was still up an impressive 98% in 2020.

But what about the rest of the year?

Did demand drop once things began to open back up over the summer? Was 2020’s holiday spike actually smaller than 2019’s?

For a clearer picture of the COVID’s long term effects, we next compared demand for May through December in 2020 to the same timeframe in 2019:

Demand did, indeed, remain high throughout the rest of 2020 when compared to 2019. Soda easily saw the highest sustained demand throughout the rest of the year with an 82% increase. Thanks to production issues like an aluminum can shortage, consumers have frequently had a hard time finding their favorite sodas in stock at their local grocery store since COVID began. So it comes as no surprise that online demand has remained consistently higher than other junk foods that haven’t faced similar sustained challenges throughout 2020.

That’s not to say that demand came crashing down for the rest of our favorite junk foods. Meat, chips, and cookies both saw demand up over 40%, while baked goods and candy experienced 37% and 36% year-over-year boosts.

Candy’s relatively strong year-over-year performance leads us to believe that the mild October we saw in the previous section wasn’t due to a slow Halloween, but was instead typical seasonality. But let’s take an even closer look for a clearer picture of how demand for junk food has changed over the past few years.

Is online demand for junk food on the rise?

Online demand for junk food was definitely up last year. Maybe we were all eating our feelings to get through the pandemic, or maybe we were simply far more likely to shop online to avoid unnecessary trips to the supermarket.

To better understand these trends, and what we might expect to see the rest of this year as the world begins to re-open, let’s examine the trendlines for the past two and a half years for each category.

Online demand for chips appears to definitely be on the rise. Even before COVID lockdowns, demand in 2020 was ahead of early 2019. You can see the clear and remarkable spike in demand during March and April, and while no month of 2021 has so far matched those heights, demand is on track to stay well ahead of 2020 through the rest of the year.  

We see a slightly different story when examining the trends for cookies, however. As we saw with chips, there was a remarkable increase between 2020 and 2019. 2021 started the year strong, but has dipped below 2020 for every month since March so far.

This could be a simple return to normal seasonal trends, or it could be that more people are venturing out to get their cookies at bakeries and grocery stores than in 2020. We’ll be keeping an eye on this trend as the summer progresses.

Online demand for meat jumped quite a bit from 2019 to 2020, but it appears that may have stalled a bit here in 2021. So far this year, demand has been slightly ahead of last year, then slightly behind, and now is nearly on par with what we saw in 2020.

Easter’s influence on online demand for candy is on full display here. In 2020, the combination of early lockdown and Easter saw demand surge during the month of April. In 2021, Easter fell in March, the same month as St. Patrick’s Day which itself is a mildly popular candy holiday. With the vaccine rollout still in early stages, online demand for candy reached new heights that month.

April 2021, without Easter there to boost it up, saw demand fall behind 2020, but it appears to be on track to remain close to 2020’s levels for the rest of the year.

Another interesting observation here is October. It does appear that 2020 saw a slightly smaller boost during the month of Halloween in 2020 than in 2019, but it could be that we sampled types of candy more popular for personal consumption than what you might buy to give away for trick or treaters. We’ll take a much closer look at candy trends later this year as Halloween approaches.

During a normal year, demand for baked goods remains rather consistent from month to month. During the height of lockdowns, demand surged as people turned to online options as their local bakeries and donut shops closed down.

And so far it appears that 2021 may see online demand slow down as more and more bakeries begin to reopen.

This view reemphasizes the major impact the pandemic had on online demand for soda. Demand was extremely stable from month to month in 2019, showing Americans enjoy soda equally no matter the time of year.

But once COVID-19 hit, and your favorite soda became frequently harder to find at the supermarket, shoppers turned to online shopping in droves. This trend has continued through 2021 so far, and we will be watching closely to see if online demand stays high even as the production issues the soda industry has faced continue to recede.

In summation, it appears online demand for junk food for most categories is slowing down. Whether this is due to a combination of more people returning to shopping at brick and mortar locations, or if people are focusing more on shedding those few extra pounds from lockdown — your guess is as good as ours. Either way, we’ll be keeping an eye on these and similar trends in the weeks and months ahead.

A lesson for brands

Our data shows that COVID-19 has had a major impact on online demand for snacks and junk food, impacting some types far more than others.

Understanding the factors that influence consumer behavior can help brands better understand how to forecast demand for their products on online marketplaces, and even inform product design and marketing strategy.

For example, we may continue to see online demand for junk food decline as more people begin to go out to get a sweet snack or some baked goods. However, we might also see demand stay high as people have grown more accustomed to buying snacks online when looking to eat their feelings.

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