Since Shoppercentric was founded in 2004 we’ve monitored UK shoppers’ habits and attitudes through various times of upheaval: the 2008 credit crunch and subsequent recession; the Brexit vote and talk of the country dropping off a cliff edge; and the much-delayed withdrawal agreement.
Now we face the uncertainty of COVID-19, which has the potential to be much more challenging, with international travel being curtailed, and countries literally locking down as we write this article.
Yet through each of these difficult times, we still need to shop. Currently, it seems toilet paper and dried pasta is a must have, but at some point, as we adjust to this new normal, panic buying is likely to stop. Quickly, and sadly, bigger issues will come to the fore, such as job security as the ripple effect of less socialising and less travelling hits business. This is likely to be the point at which spending behaviour starts to reflect the habits learnt during the recession, and which steadied nerves to a certain degree through the Brexit negotiations.
As shoppers, brands and retailers face uncertain times, it isn’t all doom and gloom. The benefit of having gone through significant upheavals so recently is that consumers know how to make the most of their spending. And we, as businesses, can also draw on that recent experience in order to plan for any softening in consumer spending.
We know from experience that shoppers are likely to adopt a range of strategies to cope:
· Prudent behaviour was the most consistent strategy during the recession, and in fact has continued to shape shopper behaviour since. This involves avoiding waste and making sure the pennies are well spent.
· Economising can be a knee-jerk reaction that peaks in the initial squeezing of budgets – when shoppers trade down from premium to mainstream, or test own label versions, or categories previously ignored in Discounters.
· Avoidance is all about avoiding temptation – whether that’s specific types or brands of stores, or categories in-store. Those places or products that the shopper feels are extravagances they can do without when times are tough.
· Active shopping – choosing where to shop based on getting the best deals (or availability).
It’s important to reflect that some of this behaviour goes completely against claimed ‘sustainable’ shopping behaviour. This in turn drives the perennial question of understanding what people ‘say’ versus what they really ‘do’, particularly when the ‘screw is turned’ and the pressure goes on. For example, organic produce was a big loser during the recession when shoppers just couldn’t ‘see’ the benefit they had been increasingly buying and paying more for versus their usual fresh produce items.
It is also likely that there will be some businesses that benefit from these unprecedented times. Online grocery is bound to get a boost when large proportions of the population are self-isolating – those long held barriers about preferring to pick out vegetables and meat themselves rather than relying on someone else aren’t relevant when you literally can’t get out to a shop. We are hearing many stories of this already being the case in Italy, which to date, has had a low online grocery shopping penetration. Then, there is the inherent snobbery which says chilled foods are always better than frozen which means nothing if the chilled foods are going to go off during the 7-14 days of isolation. Look at the boost canned foods have had in the early weeks of March.
As brands and retailers are looking to keep sales buoyant during these turbulent times, it’s important to appreciate that consumer and shopper needs will change, and there won’t be one single fix. The intricacies of categories play out in different ways. But understanding how those needs are changing and then delivering solutions that meet those needs will keep your business relevant. It may not be easy, but of course, it is possible.