Developing consumer behaviour during corona crisis: implications on food businesses

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Concerns about coronavirus trigger consumers to adjust their buying behaviour profoundly. Recent research from global analytics company Nielsen identifies six consumer behaviour threshold levels that are directly related to the evolution of the outbreak. These insights will help the food industry react to  the rapidly developing consumer needs and expectations.

Acknowledging these threshold levels - and especially the stage the country is in at this moment - may help to prepare for changing spending patterns in the short term. Furthermore, it might even predict how consumer habits are shaped in the long run. To conduct the investigation, Nielsen correlated global news events with spending behaviour on for example hygiene, health and pantry products.

Developing consumer behaviour during corona crisis: implications on food businesses
(Nielsen, 2020)

Level 1 and 2 - Health and hygiene focus
Most countries have already past level 1, in which risk awareness and focus on health and wellbeing grows, but a minor change in spending is seen. As we are facing an official pandemic and people are increasingly aware of what is happening globally, they will earlier enter level 2 and start stockpiling hygiene and health products, like hand soap and facial masks.

In these first two levels food businesses are advised:

  • to reanalyze their hygiene guidelines and take the extra necessary precautions
  • to start communicating hygiene routines with customers to build trust in an early stage 
  • to think ahead of ways to emphasize and facilitate the need for social distancing
  • to anticipate the behaviours identified in the coming levels. These will mainly concern product range and availability, followed by adapted services.

Level 3 - Hoarding begins
When the virus continues to spread locally, people will start to panic-buy and stockpile food and medicine. Consumers will prepare their pantry primarily by buying sanitary items, canned foods (tomatoes, beans, tuna) and dry staples like rice, pasta, and flour.

Developing consumer behaviour during corona crisis: implications on food businesses

In this level food businesses are advised:

  • to take a thorough look at the product range and check what changes can be made to meet consumer needs. For bakers and patissiers, this may implicate increasing / adapting their product range, and stocking up on flour, bakery or patisserie supplies or ingredients. 
  • to maybe minimize your current product range and limit opening hours if it helps to keep services up while complying with intensified hygiene guidelines. 
  • to think of procedures that will withhold people from hoarding certain products, which will cause empty shelves and insufficient stock levels.
  • to already be adapting services in view of the next levels coming up: increased online shopping behaviour and restricted shopping trips.

Developing consumer behaviour during corona crisis: implications on food businesses
(Nielsen, 2020)

Level 4 - A boost in online shopping
While more and more people are diagnosed with COVID-19, store visits will decline as people will resort to online shopping. An Ipsos study on Chinese consumer behaviour shows that large store formats, like hypermarkets and shopping centers, suffer the most at this stage. Especially when they cannot compensate with an optimal online shopping experience, e-commerce platforms, and online life apps will benefit at their expense.

Visits to grocery and convenience stores remain stable. This is probably the effect of people avoiding extremely crowded areas and long-distance trips, and finding trust and reassurance in visiting - and thereby also supporting - their local stores. 

In this level food businesses are advised to:

  • to service customers by being able to order 24/7. This will keep traffic going, makes it easier to manage orders and react to customer demand. Furthermore, customers do not need to queue and payments are managed digitally, which supports hygiene measures and social distancing.  
  • to think of ways to ease the life or proactively help customers in specific situations. As birthdays, for example, will only be celebrated with a small  group of people, smaller cakes are a good solution. 
  • to emphasize the safety and quality of products, as customers seek reassurance. The same goes for applying intensifies hygiene measures and answering the call for strict social distancing.

Level 5 - Restricted living
When communities are ordered into lockdown, shopping trips are obviously scarce and online fulfillment is limited. As only China has developed through threshold levels 5 and 6, there are no global insights on consumer patterns yet.

However, there are some interesting findings on how the Chinese spent their time at home. Watching TV and household chores are mostly combined with online activities. People engage in e-learning activities and like to watch online movies. Combining this with the insight that 44% spent time cooking and baking, arises the opportunity to share online tutorials and recipes.

Examples are bread-making recipes, cooking from the pantry or DIY birthday cakes. These are ways to maintain presence and engagement with customers. Recently, Burger King France shared how to attempt re-creating the whopper and other of their classics with household ingredients.

Developing consumer behaviour during corona crisis: implications on food businesses

Level 6 - The new normal
As far as it can be foreseen what will be the ‘new normal’ in shopping behaviour, there are several assumptions to make. In order for food businesses to effectively respond to post-coronavirus buying patterns, they should acknowledge these three expected trends: 

  1. Online shopping will become mainstream - Nielsen indicates that after the period of intensified digital connectivity, consumers will perceive fewer barriers to seek the assistance of technology in their daily lives.
  2. The need for radical transparency - Nielsen also foresees the need for complete transparency in the supply chain and details on health and safety measures. The popularity of local products will increase as well.
  3. Increased (food-related) health interest - As Ipsos shows, the majority of Chinese people claim to look for foods that will strengthen their health and immune system. Additionally, they say they will spend more on fresh food in the coming year. 

Source acknowledgment

  • Key consumer behavior thresholds identified as the coronavirus outbreak evolves (Nielsen, 2020)
  • Optimism and Anxieties during COVID-19 Outbreak - Chinese Consumers in Difficult Time (Ipsos, 2020)

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