The early days of the pandemic led to shortages in packaged goods as people rushed to stock up. But the surge in cereal sales marked a dramatic turnaround: In 2019, cereal sales dropped 0.6%, following a 1.4% drop in 2018, according to Nielsen data. In 2020, sales jumped nearly 9%.
Before the pandemic, the products were passed over by many consumers who were looking for fresh ingredients or ate breakfast on the go. But restrictions designed to curb the spread of Covid-19 led more people to eat breakfast at home, and stock up on familiar, shelf-stable products. Suddenly, cereal was cool again.
Demand rose on two ends of the cereal spectrum: Indulgent, nostalgia-invoking treats, which had started to gain traction before the pandemic, got even more popular. And healthier products geared toward adults got an unexpected revival.
"Up until the pandemic hit, the kids brands had been still doing relatively well," said Tom "TD" Dixon, chief growth officer for Post Consumer Brands. "The more adult-focused brands were kind of just hanging on by a thread. And the fact that they dramatically jumped during the pandemic, that was a little bit surprising. We weren't expecting that," he said.
At Post, "the Pebbles brand has been on fire," said Dixon. Demand for Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Pebbles during the pandemic inspired Post to partner with nutritional supplement maker Dymatize on Pebbles-flavored protein powders. "Tastes like Saturday morning," the Dymatize website promises. Demand also grew for Honeycomb and Honey Bunches of Oats, particularly the almond and honey roasted varieties, Dixon noted.
How to sustain that growth is "the million dollar question," said Dixon. One way to capitalize on the new taste for cereal is to repackage the products as snacks that can be eaten on the go. Earlier this year, Post launched Pebbles Crisps and Honeycomb Big Bites, designed to be eaten straight out of the bag.
At General Mills, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Lucky Charms and Reese's Puffs saw elevated sales during the pandemic, according to Ricardo Fernandez, the company's president of US cereal.
Those brands have been helped by nostalgia, Fernandez said. A customer might feel, "I grew up eating it as a kid, I'm in this new moment of a pandemic and I need things that make me feel comfort," he said.
In September, General Mills restored the '80s versions of Cocoa Puffs, Golden Grahams, Cookie Crisp and Trix, reviving original shapes and recipes. "We just had a bunch of households that have re-tried these things and rediscovered these things, and we're seeing that being a big benefit," Fernandez said.
General Mills also saw growth in Cheerios, which had been doing well before the pandemic and has gained traction with its heart health messaging.
And then there were the healthier offerings.
At General Mills, Nature Valley granola and Basic 4, multigrain flakes with almonds, raisins and yogurt-covered dried cranberries, "were doing fine," before the pandemic, said Fernandez, who described those brands as a "stable part of the category." But, he said, adults staying home over this past year accelerated demand for those items.