Danielle Pinnington examines the panic and prudence that drives shopping trends through times of upheaval
As shopper researchers 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 I write this article. Yet through each of these difficult times, shoppers 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. Bigger issues will come to the fore, such as job security as the virus and its ripple effects hit jobs. This is likely to be the point at which spending behaviour starts to reflect past experience. As shoppers, brands and retailers face uncertain times – though it isn’t all doom and gloom. The benefit of having gone through significant upheavals so recently is that shoppers 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). As always, a challenge for some is an opportunity for others, so there will be businesses that benefit from these unprecedented times. Online grocery is already getting a boost as large proportions of the population self-isolate – those long held barriers about preferring to pick out vegetables and meat themselves rather than rely on someone else aren’t relevant when you literally can’t get out to a shop. Will we see a surge in subscription services? Until now, for many shoppers, this has felt too fragmented to be a helpful way to shop because of all the different sign-ups required, but maybe this is another barrier that will be breached by the need to keep essential products in stock with confidence.
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. Equally, making sure the brand benefits you promote to justify your pricing are clear and tangible should avoid the kind of rejection organic foods saw during the recession.
These next few months may not be easy, but by making the most of collective experience we can get through this.
Danielle Pinnington is MD of Shoppercentric, which she founded in 2004. Her clients include Cadbury, Coca Cola and Unilever. She’s widely recognised as a guru in shopper marketing and is the go-to expert when BBC, Sky and national media need authoritative comment.