SAN ANTONIO – For the past 12 months, perimeter sales haves skyrocketed due to new shopping trends that have emerged during the pandemic. A year in, however, year-over-year sales from March 2021 fall far behind sales numbers from March 2020, when the pandemic first took hold.  

Overall, basket sizes between March 7 and March 28, 2021, dropped 17.8% below record levels in March 2020, shows data collected by IRI and released in 210 Analytics' latest perimeter sales report. Compared to a year ago, overall perimeter sales fell below sales in 2020 by 13.6%, sales did, however, remain elevated over pre-pandemic numbers from 2019 by 12.8%. 

“We knew the year-over-year sales picture would radically change come March in going up against the early pandemic spikes of 2020,” said Jeremy Johnson, vice president of education for the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association. “In addition to understanding where sales come in relative to those peak March weeks, it is just as important to track current demand relative to the pre-pandemic normal. The country is opening up a little more each day and that will impact consumers’ engagement with deli prepared as well as in-store bakery as celebrations and gatherings are likely to start normalizing along with it. For everyday meal occasions, it’s important to understand where that new at-home versus away-from-home spending balance lies relative to pre-pandemic to help our industry with demand forecasting.” 

As the months pushed forward in the pandemic, seafood category sales exploded. That surge has come in strong into 2021 and the seafood department was the only fresh department that went against 2020 dollar sales and came out on top in March.   

Compared to March 2020, dollar sales of fresh seafood in March 2020 were 13.3% elevated. Fresh shellfish had the highest numbers, totaling in at 37.3% above sales in 2020, while finfish fell slightly behind 2020 sales by 0.2%. Meanwhile total fresh seafood sales in March 2021 were above 2019 dollar sales by 26.2%. Top sellers in the category included lobster, crab and tuna.  

“The big spikes in 2020 took place the week endings March 15 and 22,” said Anne-Marie Roerink, president of 210 Analytics. “Fresh seafood managed to track ahead of year-ago levels even during those weeks. The earlier Easter boosted fresh seafood levels to +30.2% in the final week of March. Compared with 2019, dollar gains paced about 30% ahead most weeks.” 

Meanwhile in the dairy department, while falling approximately 14.2% behind sales in March 2020, dairy sales in 2021 still outpaced March 2019 sales by 10.9%. Top performers in the category included cream cheese, whipped toppings and natural cheese.  

“Dairy was one of the early pandemic powerhouses of 2020,” said Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator with IDDBA. “Very early on, sales for milk, cheese, eggs, etc. spiked to unprecedented heights. It’s hardly surprising to see that 2021 sales could not keep pace with those enormous spikes in sales.” 

Deli department sales on the other hand, have struggled amid the pandemic, but overall, the category still lagged March 2020 by 0.3%, and outpaced 2019 dollar sales by 9.8%. Deli-prepared has been one of the hardest hit categories during the pandemic and saw a 7.4% increase over 2020 numbers in March 2021. 

“From the very start, cheese was a pandemic bestseller, whether packaged or deli cheese, as was deli meat, but deli-prepared struggled once shelter-in-place mandates ensued. While deli-prepared has made a big comeback it never quite got back to pre-pandemic levels,” said Angela Bozo, education director with IDDBA. “Of course, that means now, deli-prepared has an easier time in going up against year ago levels than meat and cheese.”  

Also, a pandemic-challenged category the bakery category fell 10.3% behind sales in 2020 while still outpacing 2019 sales by 8.6%. 

Meanwhile, in March 2020, meat department sales saw the largest gains of any grocery category. When put against that, dollar sales for the meat department in March 2021 fall 21.9% behind. Although, the numbers are still 18% above sales in 2019. Top players in the category still included fresh lamb, fresh beef and fresh pork. 

“Fresh meat sales totaled $5.9 billion in March 2021, virtually unchanged from February 2021,” said Roerink. “However, in the year-over-year view, March sales went up against the biggest spikes in the history of meat retailing and fresh meat sales fell 21.9% below year ago levels. Lamb was the only one staying ahead of March 2020, at +8.2% — no doubt boosted by the earlier Easter timing and strong everyday demand.” 

When compared to 2019 dollar sales, the produce department remains elevated by 11%. Going up against March 2020, however, the department lagged 7.6% behind 2020 sales in March 2021. Fruits fell 3.9% behind 2020 dollar sales, but were elevated 11.7% over 2019, while vegetables lagged 11.1% behind 2020 dollar sales, and came in 10.6% above 2019 sales.  

Top players in the produce category in March 2021 were berries, cucumbers, lemons, tomatoes and mushrooms. 

“While the year-ago picture is always important, it is just as important to understand current demand relative to the pre-pandemic normal as the country is starting to open up a little more each day,” said Joe Watson, vice president of membership and engagement for the Produce Marketing Association (PMA). “Consumer mobility is improving, and it is likely we will see a shift from home-centric consumption to more meals being eaten outside the home. Understanding where that at-home versus away-from-home spending balance lies relative to pre-pandemic will help our industry with demand forecasting.”