Shoppers change behaviour as COVID-19 takes hold

New research from consumer intelligence specialists, Mintel, shows that there has been changes in consumer sentiment and behaviour as a result of the spread of COVID-19 across Australia and New Zealand.

“With the COVID-19 novel coronavirus continuing to spread in Australia and New Zealand, government-imposed social distancing measures and a stimulus package to safeguard jobs, the impact of the virus on the economy is already starting to show. However, effects vary by sector; while some industries are fighting for survival, others have proven their quick adaptability to the new environment,” said Elysha Young, Mintel trends manager for APAC.

“Our research shows how changing consumer sentiment and behaviour in reaction to the virus is having profound effects on certain sectors. In response, we’re seeing some companies and brands adapting to meet new – or newly important – consumer needs.”

Concern is on the rise
Mintel research shows that over half of Australian consumers (63 per cent) are concerned about the risk of being exposed to COVID-19. In the 48 hours from 25-27 March, Google Trends reported the search “symptoms of coronavirus” by Australians had spiked by 1,180 per cent. However, as the curve begins to flatten, there is an expectation that concern around exposure will similarly ease off, replaced with concern over the effect the outbreak will have on lifestyles. Australian consumers are worried how the outbreak might impact their lifestyle, with over one third (36 per cent) saying they are “extremely worried”.

Given the speed of the crisis, it was noted that almost one quarter (24 per cent) of Australian consumers remained unsure whether to be worried about exposure, even as they entered the third week of restrictions. As government shutdowns remain in effect indefinitely, the lack of a clear end-date left many consumers concerned about both their day-to-day lifestyles and their longer-term economic prospects.

Good hygiene and avoiding crowded places are top priorities
“Mintel research shows that the majority of Australians are making changes in light of the virus, with increased hand washing, use of hand sanitiser, and avoidance of public places the biggest behaviour shifts,” said Young. “Within a week of restrictions, we saw personal hygiene behaviours increase, with 80 per cent saying they washed their hands more often and 75 per cent reporting they used hand sanitiser more often, up from 64 per cent and 55 per cent respectively.”

Consumers are also increasing their use of household disinfectants and cleaners, with 45 per cent reporting they had done so in response to the outbreak. Moving forward, as social distancing becomes further normalised and consumers continue to stay indoors as much as possible, we expect to see consumers continue to look for products that help them keep their environments as hygienic as possible.

Changing behaviours around grocery shopping and online shopping
Consumers aged 35-54 were most likely to indicate that they are stocking up on groceries and other supplies with two in five (38 per cent) saying they have changed their purchasing behaviour in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Non-perishable items were cleared from the shelves almost immediately as consumers swept through in search of staples to stock up on,” said Young. “As a result, purchases of rice, pasta, canned vegetables, tinned meals and fish, breakfast cereals, biscuits, coffee and yeast were all restricted early by supermarkets. As shortages continued longer than many had predicted, both younger and older cohorts have similarly adopted more of a stockpiling mentality. For many millennials (b. 1980-99) this could be their first real experience of planning out and bulk buying groceries, as we’ve seen a preference for smaller, more frequent shopping trips over the past few years.”

From in-store to online shopping, while millennials led the eCommerce charge with 23 per cent of those aged 25-34 saying they have increased the amount of shopping they do online in response to the outbreak, older consumers followed suit – 16 per cent of those aged 45-54 and 12 per cent of those aged 55 plus have increased online shopping due to the spread of COVID-19.

“We also found that family health and high living costs are of top concern to Australian consumers,” said Young. “Twenty-one per cent of Australian consumers expect to spend less on food (excluding takeaways/delivery) in the next month, and that 44 per cent of Australians are expressing little confidence that their financial situation will improve over the next few months. Overall it seems that while fresh will be important, especially as it relates to health, what will be of highest consideration is value, whether that is fresh or non-perishable.”

Twenty-six per cent of respondents also expressed concern about the safety of their food products, which could contribute to a broader trend we’re seeing around localism – potentially a way for products to demonstrate their value will be through local/provenance claims for greater transparency.”

Lessons learned from China
“COVID-19 has created an unprecedented situation that will impact the Australian population and economy. China was the first to deal with the crisis, hence, it is worth looking to China to see what lessons we can learn to help Australian businesses find ways to deal with the immediate impact of the crisis,” said Young.

“Speaking to our colleagues in China, once the initial consumer panic of stockpiling groceries and other supplies faded, they observed a counter trend: the aforementioned increased emphasis on fresh food. More people working at home means more time for home cooking, and there’s an inevitable tendency for people to try to eat as well as possible during a time of elevated fears over health and well-being.”

A desire to support local businesses was clear in China, and Young is expecting to see the same thing in Australia and New Zealand.

“As shoppers, we are entirely reliant on businesses’ ability to supply the goods and services that allow us to survive and thrive,” she said. “And as businesses, we are entirely reliant on our customers’ support. Post-isolation, expect to see Australian consumers focus more on supporting their communities in search of authenticity, transparency, and sincerity. A move towards more human connections will influence Australians’ perception of value in their interactions with every brand.”

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