It would seem that popcorn, America’s favorite concession stand snack, has taken a hiatus as movie theaters across the country have closed due to the coronavirus. But according to some of the top popcorn suppliers in the United States, sales have in fact been surging since the country entered into lockdown.
“In mid-March, when everybody around the country was told to stay home, the next six weeks were out of control crazy,” Garry Smith, president of Jolly Time popcorn company, tells Variety. “During that six-week period, in very round numbers, our microwave popcorn sales grew 40% to 50%. And our raw popcorn sales to grocery stores, which comes in polyethylene bags now and in plastic jars, that business increased 70% to 80%.”
Popcorn and cinema have always gone hand-in-hand. Ashley Lind, director of demand science of Conagra brands (which includes Orville Redenbacher’s and Act II popcorn companies), believes that the uptick in sales is directly correlated to the pandemic and families staying at home, missing the buttery goodness of movie theater popcorn.
With the popularity of “Hamilton” on Disney Plus, for example, parents and their children are snacking on their couches and watching streaming services. Grocery shopping in general is on the rise as restaurants are also shut down, lending a hand to microwave popcorn’s increase in popularity.
Microwave popcorn companies as a whole have seen double digit increases from May 2019 through May 2020, raking in around $922 million, a 13% increase compared to the previous year-long period. Jolly Time only accounts for 3% of the popcorn market, while other companies like Pop Secret (17%), Orville Redenbacher’s (16%), Act II (15%) and store brands (14%) round out the shelves. All of these companies saw double digit gains, which are “huge after several years of flat to small declines,” said Jennifer Christ, manager of food and beverage research for Packaged Facts of Market Research.com.
Like Smith, Lind saw the brands significantly rise in sales from mid-March to now. Act II sales have surged during this time period by 52% in dollar sales compared to the same time period last year. Orville Redenbacher’s saw a 43% increase, and their raw kernal option grew by 47%. This, Lind said, has to do with the rise in consumers binge watching via streaming services as families are at home craving popcorn.
“We had seen prior to the pandemic that as people were spending more time in front of all of these devices, they were also consuming more snack foods,” Lind said. “Those types of what we call leisure activities when you’re scrolling through your phone and browsing on the internet or watching a movie, if we’re doing more of those things, we’re also eating more snacks while we were doing it.”
Lind added: “One of the things with popcorn is that it is really one of the top things that people choose to snack on when they’re doing that. So, it was already a behavior that we were seeing before COVID-19 hit, and then to say it kicked into high gear I think would be an understatement.”
As many restaurants, bars and movie theaters closed down in March, Smith said that their business was considered essential. To deal with the increase in demand, his employees worked 12-hour days to keep up. Just as quickly as their business distributing to movie theaters and ballparks disappeared, their grocery business rose dramatically.
“I’ve been at this for 43 years,” Smith said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I never in my wildest dreams could anticipate what mid-March brought.”
In May, June and July, sales continued to remain strong, though not as high as they did in the first two months of quarantine, according to Smith. He’s hopeful that sales of popcorn will remain strong even as movie theaters slowly come back.
“People are staying home,” Smith said. “They’re binge-watching Netflix and instead of going to a movie theater, they’re popping popcorn at home. A rising tide lifts all boats and that’s very much what happened to the popcorn industry.”