Millennials 'killed' these products, but COVID-19 brought them back
Few generations have been as choosy as millennials with their brand and product preferences, or with such wide effect. In recent years, the group has been blamed for “killing” a variety of items that struggled with sales declines as they fell out of favor. Millennials shied away from American cheese, because it was too processed—and perhaps too orange. They stopped using napkins because, in a pinch, paper towels would do just fine. And golf was fine for older parents but not hip enough to gain interest with younger generations.
But as the coronavirus changes consumer behavior, it’s altering purchase decisions, which is leading to a resurgence in those categories. The changes are fueled by a variety of factors, including price, availability and durability. Consumers making fewer trips to the grocery store are in need of food with a longer shelf life, for example. They also don’t want to be paralyzed by choice, according to Greg Portell, lead partner in the global consumer practice of Kearney, a strategy and management consulting firm.
“That simplification of the consumer perspective is why we’re seeing a lot of these categories come back,” he says. “The reality is the time pressures that we all dreamt would be taken away as part of this work-from-home [situation] are really magnified, so consumers are trying to simplify their lives at home and that’s leading into category choices.”
If marketers pay attention now, and adjust supplies accordingly, they could continue to win in these areas post-pandemic, experts say. “It’s now creating a marketing opportunity,” says Andy Mantis, chief business officer of 1010reveal at 1010data, which provides analytical intelligence to the financial and retail markets, noting that categories gaining ground now could be highlighted in marketing promotions. “It’s really providing a different insight to assortment planning and the associated marketing to get more share of customers’ wallets.”
Here are the items and categories revived during the pandemic:
All-purpose paper towels had been the meal accompaniment of choice for younger generations, recent studies have shown. But now, with more consumers cooking at home—and in some cases, trying to bring an extra level of fancy to the dinner table—napkins are trending upward. Sales of napkins were up more than 43 percent for the nine weeks ended May 2, compared with the year-earlier period, according to Nielsen data. Vanity Fair is reaping the benefits.
“As a result of consumers spending more time at home cooking meals for their families, the napkin category, including the Vanity Fair Napkin brand, is seeing an increase in shoppers and sales since the pandemic started,” says Katie Kolesky, senior director of brand building at the Georgia-Pacific-owned brand. “We're doing everything we possibly can to meet our consumers' needs during this incredibly stressful time." That includes Vanity Fair’s recent creation, with Joan Creative, of an online cooking show to help chefs during the pandemic.
It’s only just beginning to be barbecue season in the Northeast, but American cheese has been on a hot streak for several weeks. Unlike more rare kinds of cheese, the American version—often wrapped in single slices—will last well through summer. For the 10 weeks ended May 9, sales of American cheese were up more than 47 percent, Nielsen found. Kraft Heinz sells products including Kraft Singles American cheese slices and Velveeta, which people have been buying as they are cooking more comfort foods such as grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese (it sells that too, of course).
“I think in times of uncertainty consumers turn to brands that they trust,” CEO Miguel Patricio said on a conference call in late April. He says that right now, consumers want to experiment less with new brands. “Our brands represent comfort for people and I think that the consumers are coming back to big brands,” Patricio said.
Golf was never the sport of choice for younger generations, which led to its decline in recent years. It was at odds with millennials’ values and preferences—the rules were overly complicated, the game took the time-starved group too long to play, and golf is not known for its environmental sustainability, according to Matt Powell, VP and senior industry advisor of sports at NPD Group. But now, golf is on an upswing—a trend that began last year as more boomers retired and tried the sport, and that is continuing during the pandemic. The no-contact sport is one of only a few mostly open for business during the lockdowns. In March, sales of golf practice nets and screens increased 144 percent; swinging and putting mats were up 138 percent over last year, according to NPD. “People are really clamoring to go out and do stuff and we could see golf take off again really quickly,” says Powell.
Millennials and others weren't spending much time on breakfast at home before the pandemic; cereal was particularly hard hit. Younger generations have gravitated toward either on-the-go meals or trendier options like avocado toast and spinach smoothies, which contributed to cereal’s decline. But now, with more kids at home and in need of an easy meal they can make themselves, the category is on the rise.
“Cereal is easy to prepare; you can tell your kid to get a bowl of cereal,” says Kearney’s Portell. “It’s easier than making a scrambled egg, and certainly easier than making a soufflé.”
Nielsen data shows that breakfast cereal sales rose 35 percent for the week ended April 25, compared with the year-earlier period. For the two months ended April 25, cereal was up 34 percent.
Beer had been taking a backseat to trendier beverages including hard cider and spiked seltzer, but now it’s back. 1010data’s Mantel says many consumers are ordering alcohol to be delivered. In March and April, online beer sales were up more than 100 percent, he says. Plus, because they want to make fewer trips to the grocery store, shoppers are buying in bulk, which means more cases of brands like Budweiser and Coors, which are enjoying a renaissance, according to reports.
Contributing: Jessica Wohl