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With panic buying and pantry stocking seemingly in the rearview mirror of this pandemic, foodmakers like General Mills are hoping to persuade consumers to keep coming back for more.

Soon after the coronavirus took hold in the U.S., Golden Valley-based General Mills reaped the benefits of a shut-in society. Home-cooking and meals at home skyrocketed with many shoppers returning to familiar household brands, such as Betty Crocker, Pillsbury and Lucky Charms.

But as the U.S. enters a protracted stage of the public health crisis, Americans’ buying habits are shifting in subtle and somewhat mysterious ways.

“We will get through this and see where things end up at the end of the day. You can’t be certain, but we do think consumers are changing their behaviors,” said Jon Nudi, president of North America Retail for General Mills.

While there are near-term questions about the ability of supply chains and inventory levels to meet demand, the key for General Mills is whether it can maintain some of the new or lapsed customers it reached in the past several months once the pandemic subsides.

“Retaining consumers has got to be job No. 1 right now. We’ve had an unexpected gift [of reaching more consumers],” Nudi said.

Even as demand for its products soared in the spring, General Mills never trimmed its marketing budget. With consumers spending even more time in front of computers, the company shifted much of its marketing to digital platforms.

In the short term, how and where consumers spend their food dollars in the coming months will determine General Mills’ financial performance for the rest of the fiscal year, Kofi Bruce, General Mills’ chief financial officer, told investors Wednesday at the virtual 2020 Barclays Global Consumer Staples Conference.

General Mills’ next nine months will largely be defined by the push-pull dynamics of its retail business, which serves average consumers and grocery stores, vs. its food-service business, which sells to schools, universities and hospitals.

While at-home food demand remains higher than it was pre-pandemic, retail sales are moderating around the world.

Meanwhile, institutional orders from restaurants, universities and cafeterias are a bit less predictable with scattershot back-to-school plans for K-12 and higher education, and wide variation in the limitations placed on restaurants and dining venues.

The fear of supply shortages during the early days of the pandemic drove U.S. shoppers to stockpile shelf-stable foods and paper products. It also pushed people toward comforting traditions, such as baking. The coinciding surge in online grocery shopping also pushed people toward big-name, traditional brands, which boded well for companies such as General Mills, Conagra and Campbell’s.

“People were buying from a need state rather than a discovery state,” said Rigo Viezca, global head of consumer goods solutions at Signals Analytics. “What we saw in the [early days of the] pandemic, no one was in a discovery phase of trying new products just to try them. They were looking for brands that they knew would deliver. They wanted to take fewer trips and wanted to know they would like it.”

Still today, two of General Mills’ major categories — soup and baking products — have a constrained supply chain where demand exceeds available inventory, Nudi said.

“What is unknowable is the magnitude of demand [for the rest of the year],” Bruce said.

The company expects higher costs in order to ramp up production, much of which is dependent on external supply chains that are more costly.

But the key indicators investors are watching with traditional packaged food manufacturers like General Mills are ones that illustrate how well a company took advantage of the momentum the pandemic created for their products to fuel future growth.

General Mills said it increased its market share — or piece of the pie — over the past six months in both U.S. retail and U.S. away-from-home sales. The company also said it is gaining share so far this year in key international markets of Canada, France, the U.K., China and Brazil.

General Mills significantly increased the number of households where its products could be found over the past six months, including brands such as Cheerios, Pillsbury, Old El Paso, Progresso, Yoplait and Betty Crocker. The company said that it gained more household penetration than the leading competitor brand in eight of its top 10 U.S. product categories.

“We think we are set up nicely and really have the pedal down,” Nudi said. “We feel like all the work we’ve put in the past decade is really paying off and now we are really doubling-down our efforts to make sure we keep these consumers moving forward.”

Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767