When the panic set in at the start of the pandemic, Australians rushed out and bought a whole lot of carbs, new food sales data reveals.
Sales of cereals – which include pasta, rice and flour – spiked by 40% in March 2020 compared with the month prior as people stocked up for the first of the Covid-19 lockdowns, the figures show.
The total amount of food scanned at supermarket checkouts rose by 4.5% that month compared with the year before. The year-on-year spike was even higher in Victoria at 8.4% in March 2020 and it jumped to more than 14% in September as the lockdowns dragged on.
The new research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that cereals, as well as other long-life categories of foods, were especially popular at the start of the pandemic. The purchase of condiments, spreads and pantry staples like oils, coffee and tea also surged.
By June 2020, as panic buying started to ease around much of the country, many foods with shorter shelf lives rebounded, such as cheeses, vegetables, fruits, some meats and other dairy products.
“We did observe a significant surge in spending across both food and non-food products during the March quarter, as households prepared for a significant period of time at home,” Tom Lay, the director of national accounts at the ABS, said.
“However, in June quarter 2020, volumes of food consumption returned to more normal levels following significant stockpiling activity by households in March.”
The data released does not show what happened to quantities of toilet paper sold in March 2020. But other ABS data shows categories that include things like toilet paper did also spike.
Over time the quantities of food people consume tend to be relatively stable. In order to track things like inflation, the ABS attempts to adjust for changes in the quality of goods so that their measurements are consistent.
The researchers used these calculations to create an index of the quality of the goods being scanned, using the prices and quantities of the goods. If the price of a loaf of bread increases and consumers switch to cheaper options, this would show as a decline in quality, for instance.
The quality of goods purchased appears to be closely but inversely related to the quantities being scanned.
Using this index we can see that in March 2020 – as the quantities of foodstuffs purchased soared – the quality of the goods scanned crashed. Not knowing how long lockdowns might last, and with shelves bare, Australians seem to have taken whatever they could get.
As shopping somewhat returned to normal in June, the quality of goods purchased increased significantly.
“As dine-in services at cafes and restaurants were closed down to help manage the pandemic, scanner data showed that households increased the quality of their food expenditure, e.g. higher quality ingredients,” Lay said.
“We think this is in response to the closure of dine-in services at cafes and restaurants and more time cooking at home.”
That same phenomenon can be seen in the regular retail trade data released by the ABS. Over a similar time period as the ABS’s scanner data, we can see that the month-to-month changes in food retailing (which includes supermarkets and liquor shops) is closely related to restaurants and cafes.
There is a big divergence in March 2020: when many restaurants and cafes were shut, retail food soared. There was a complete reverse in the following month, as parts of Australia relaxed lockdown rules.