Analysis: America’s Love Affair With Donuts (& Other Junk Food)

The first Friday of June marks National Doughnut Day, which was started by the Salvation Army way back in 1938 to raise money during the Great Depression while also honoring members who served donuts to soldiers during World War I.

With National Doughnut Day right around the corner, we thought this would be a perfect time to dive into online demand data for junk food: Does National Doughnut Day drive online demand for donuts like it does for brick and mortar locations? Did COVID-19 drive a spike in demand for salty and sugary snacks? And if so, is online junk food demand still high now that things are starting to open back up?

Our data science team analyzed market demand for junk food from 2019 through 2021 so far to find out the answer to these questions and more.

When is online demand highest for donuts?

Let’s start with a quick look at the daily demand for Donuts for every day last year:

Online demand for donuts was remarkably consistent throughout 2020. April 28th was the largest single-day for donut demand, while the day before St. Patrick’s Day (which was right around when COVID lockdowns began) was the second largest. Several of the biggest days of the year were all in the days immediately following initial COVID lockdowns, suggesting they drove a modest increase in demand.

National Donut Day, meanwhile, doesn’t appear to really move the needle for online demand for donuts, suggesting the holiday drives far more business to local bakeries and donut shops than widespread online demand.

While demand for donuts is remarkably steady, we suspected that wasn’t necessarily the case for most other types of junk food. So we dug deeper into the data by comparing relative change in weekly demand for different types of junk food:

This chart shows how much total demand increased or decreased compared to the average week throughout the year for each major category of junk food.

As you can see, demand for most types of junk food started last year below average. As millions of Americans start the year out with well-intentioned new year's resolutions, demand for chips, candy, soda, cookies, and desserts were all well below annual average.

Unsurprisingly, desserts, cookies, and candy all received a substantial bump during Valentine’s Day. In mid-March, as the pandemic began to spread and people began sheltering in place, demand for all types of junk food shot up.

Demand for chips nearly doubled the annual average during the week of March 15th, easily the largest immediate surge in our analysis. Demand for candy experienced the second largest peak, but somewhat later, during the week of March 29th.

After clearing out virtual (and physical) shelves early in the pandemic, demand stabilized by early summertime before peaking dramatically during the holidays. Demand for desserts peaked at a massive 208% increase during the week of Christmas. Demand for candy and cookies also peaked during that week, while demand for soda and donuts remained stable. Demand for chips, meanwhile, hit their annual low during the holiday season.

To underscore just how much the pandemic affected online demand for certain types of junk food, let’s examine total daily demand for chips, as they were the category that appeared to receive the largest COVID bump.

Demand for chips skyrocketed overnight as Americans prepared to shelter in place, hitting its apex on March 16th. Again, demand remained solidly high the rest of the year before dropping during the holidays.

2020 was obviously a rather unique year, so we next wanted to better understand how COVID-19 may have changed demand for junk food.

How did COVID-19 impact online demand for junk food?

In the previous section we saw demand spike in the earliest weeks of the pandemic, but for a clearer view on the long-term impact, we next compared demand in 2020 to demand in 2019.

2020 started out as a strong year for online snack sales. Demand was up for each category in January 2020 than in January 2019, with chips experiencing the strongest start to the year.

As the previous section suggested, and this chart reinforces, COVID-19 began to have a tremendous impact on demand in March. Demand skyrocketed for several types of snack foods, with demand for chips increasing by an astounding 204% year-over-year last March.

Demand for cookies also peaked in March, with a 149% increase over 2019, and demand for soda and candy nearly doubled.

Demand remained extremely high in April, although most categories saw year-over-year increases fall to slightly less dramatic levels. Demand for soda, interestingly, hit its year-over-year peak in April, likely driven by the in-store shortages the country was experiencing at the time.

Desserts also experienced a larger boost in April than in March, perhaps due in part to Americans turning to online shopping to supply their socially-distant Easter celebrations.

Year-over-year demand fell over the summer and fall for each of our categories, but still remained well ahead of 2019s figures. So despite an initial surge, it’s clear that 2020 remained an unusually strong year for online junk food sales.

Interestingly, donuts saw far more modest year-over-year increases, with demand in October actually falling behind 2019. It could be that donuts weren’t really people’s junk food of choice last year, or perhaps most were simply more willing to mask up for a visit to their local bakery when they had a craving for fresh donuts.

Is online demand still high for junk food in 2021?

It’s clear that 2020 brought a surge in online demand for all sorts of junk food, and that demand appeared to linger throughout the entire year. But have those trends continued this year? Is online demand for snack food falling as things begin to reopen? Or are we doing more stress eating than ever?

Let’s take a month-by-month view of total demand for 2019, 2020, and 2021 so far to see how things have looked so far. We’ll examine each category in a separate chart, starting first with chips:

Online demand for chips in January and February of this year outpaced the same months in 2020, but March saw demand both slightly from February’s total and far behind March 2020’s high-point.

Cookies have seen an even more dramatic example of the same trend:

As with chips, cookies started the year with a strong January and February, but this time the drop in March was even more dramatic. Demand also dropped from February to March in 2019, so this could also simply be the return to a typical seasonal trend.

Examining this view for soda, however, provides more evidence that online demand for junk food may be slowing somewhat. Once again, demand dipped somewhat from Feburary to March, and again from March to April.

Demand for desserts is also following a similar trend:

It’s still early in the year, but between these categories, there’s some evidence that online demand for junk food may be slowing somewhat as the pandemic begins to slow and things begin to reopen.

One category that didn’t see a decline from February to March was candy:

Demand for candy rose by 37% from February to March to hit its highest point of any month in our analysis. This is likely due to the combined impact of St. Patrick’s Day and Easter, which fell on April 5th but likely increased demand for candy in late March (a theory reinforced by demand dropping precipitously in April).

Overall, it appears online demand for junk food is softening. Whether this is due to a combination of more people returning to shopping at brick and mortar locations, or if people are simply looking to eat healthier as the world begins to reopen — 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.

To stay up to date on consumer behavior and ecommerce news, info, and trend analyses, be sure to subscribe to Pattern Insights on the right.

And, if you’d like to learn more about how you can best leverage our data to help your brand win online, holiday or not, schedule a demo today.

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