The dunnhumby Consumer Pulse Survey is a multi-phased, worldwide study of the impact of COVID-19 on customer attitudes and behavior. We surveyed more than 27,000 respondents online in 22 countries, with interviews conducted for Wave one from March 29 – April 1, for Wave two from April 11 – 14, and for Wave three from May 27 – 31. Due to the rapidly unfolding crisis in North America, dunnhumby conducted Wave four from July 9 – 12 in the U.S., Canada and Mexico only. Here are highlights from the study:
The retail sector has experienced both of these extremes, with some seeing strong sales while others have been forced into bankruptcy and liquidation.
What we have seen is an acceleration of trends that were in motion prior to the pandemic but are now even more essential for success. One such trend is, understandably, the enhanced focus in retail on health and wellness. This is not a new phenomenon especially within Retail Pharmacy as "buy and build" expansion pushed the market towards saturation. More savvy competition, both within the sector, as well as grocery, mass merchant, and ecommerce began to expand into Health & Beauty (H&B) and prescriptions.
Prescription benefit managers (PBMs) grew increasingly powerful and began demanding lower reimbursement terms and restricted access to customers. Some even set up their own mail order prescription businesses and became direct competitors. This direct attack on the pharmacy business model, combined with the erosion of the convenience advantage forced chains to find other ways to extend their reach. For many, the answer lay in diversification and, specifically, the integration of products and services that had previously sat with dedicated medical providers.
Faced with limited development prospects, retail pharmacies once again needed to re-examine their offering and carve out a distinctive customer proposition.
In the US, prescription medicines account for around two-thirds of retail pharmacy revenues¹. As a result, repeat business is vital. Clinical services – a longer-term, more consultative offering than pure dispensary – can help to encourage ongoing business by building a stronger relationship between pharmacist and patient.
With that in mind, it's little wonder that for many retail pharmacies in the mid-2000s, the decision to expand into clinical services seemed like a natural evolution.
CVS, Walgreens and others went through a flurry of acquisitions, purchasing small health service companies up and down the US. In-store facilities were rolled out to capture new clinical business and commence the shift into a wider "health services" offering.
Certain activities, such as immunizations, had successful starts. But the growth of these clinics and their services rapidly dropped off and it soon became apparent that success would not be as readily won as those retailers may have hoped.
One major problem lay deep in the complex inner workings of US healthcare. Limited by their insurance plan benefit structures, customers would often find themselves unable to access the full range of services offered in-store. Clinical service costs, while usually lower than those available at a hospital or doctor's office, would likely be higher than the insured co-pay price paid by the consumer at the latter.
Retailers quickly learned that in order to integrate into the healthcare industry, they would need to learn how to influence and control it as well.
Playing a long game
CVS, which made the strongest initial investment into in-store clinics, has spent more than a decade in pursuit of that goal. Major product decisions, such as the removal of tobacco from stores (itself a $1bn annual business) were executed in the name of a slow repositioning towards healthcare.
Strategic acquisitions have only helped to further that ambition. With its first major vertical healthcare purchase – that of PBM Caremark in 2006 – CVS gained control of the levers of customer access and prescription reimbursement for millions of lives. 13 years later, with the acquisition of Aetna, the company added the ability to provide health, dental, vision and other insurance plans to customers.
Taken to its logical conclusion, this trajectory could lead to the eventual formation of an integrated healthcare system supported by some 10,000 points of service.
There is growing evidence that an empire of that kind is firmly in the retailer's plans. CVS has already announced its intention to evolve clinics into more expansive "Health Hubs", bringing enhanced services to 1,500 locations by 2021. Health Hubs include more space devoted to clinical services and a broader focus on proactive wellness and nutrition alongside extensive health services.
That wider remit is immediately evident in an enhanced product assortment, one that includes numerous specialized items and categories for maintaining health and preventative wellness products –. And, perhaps influenced by insights delivered by Aetna, CVS has also chosen to put significant emphasis on chronic condition management, an area that can provide a pharmacy with some of its most valuable customers.
While CVS is playing a highly strategic game, though, it is by no means the only player to watch.
Save money, live better
As the world's largest retailer, just about anything Walmart does is reason for the competition to pay attention. It may have taken more than a quarter of a century for Walmart to start selling groceries after all, but the retail behemoth now holds top position in that segment in North America by an overwhelming margin.
With that precedent in mind, and in light of Walmart now holding the position as the nation's third largest retail pharmacy provider, it seems likely that another fierce battle for the future of retail pharma is about to begin.
Launched in fall 2019, the Walmart Health Care Clinic serves as a good indicator as to the strength of the company's ambitions.
Staffed to deliver an expansive set of services that range from primary care and disease management through to dental, hearing, nutrition and fitness, these sleek, modern facilities offer the same one-stop-shop approach as Walmart's core store.
Moreover, Health Care Clinics also employ the company's "everyday low pricing" model, something that makes for a compelling proposition regardless of insurance coverage. Medicare and Medicaid are both accepted too, encompassing what is likely a significant number of customers.
The battle within
Similar at their core yet, subtly different, these offerings from CVS and Walmart represent a dramatic shift in healthcare delivery in the US.
While the scale of each remains too small at this point to draw many conclusions, those small differences could carve out room enough for both to flourish. CVS' focus on providing specialist-level health and chronic condition care is different enough from Walmart's "low price, one-stop shop" approach to appeal to a distinct group of customers.
Rather than between each other, the biggest challenges ahead for CVS and Walmart may actually be found within. As both companies make fundamental changes in order to facilitate a future in which healthcare is a significant part of their offering, they will need to focus on evolving their relationships with their long-term customers too.
CVS, for instance, will need to ask customers to reconcile the idea that a company that continues to dominate in snacks and candy is now an active participant in their healthcare. And Walmart, famed for its leadership in building highly efficient operations, will need to scale and sustain a healthcare business rooted in flat, affordable pricing, as well as build the credibility as a viable provider of quality healthcare.
Neither challenge is easy. But if history has taught us anything, it's that when companies of this size decide to redefine an industry from the ground-up, they tend to succeed.
The arrival of Covid-19 also introduces a new reality unthinkable less than a year ago. Health and wellness permeates all aspects of our lives and vigilance is essential to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
- PPE has become a category in its own right with massive and sustained demand across such items as masks and sanitizers.
- Hospital capacity is being tested repeatedly with infection surges and unable to address lower level and elective procedures
- Vaccination is now a global necessity requiring a distribution network capable of rapidly reaching billions of people
Memories of panic buying may be fading here in the UK but have resurfaced elsewhere1. The near constant threat of another wave of Covid-19 may yet prompt another round of hyper demand. Whilst there is little hard evidence to determine the underlying drivers of panic buying2, there are numerous theories that the retail industry may benefit from exploring.
Feroud Seeparsand, dunnhumby's Senior Consumer Psychologist, outlines some likely theories to explain the 'why' behind the 'panic buy' and some implications for retailers to prevent it reoccurring in future.
1. Loss Aversion
Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman stated that 'loss aversion' was his and Amos Tversky's single greatest contribution to decision-making theory3.
We feel the pain of loss more than an equivalent gain. In other words, losing £100 hurts more than the joy of winning £100. When applied to panic buying, we fear for the loss of a product we could otherwise have had. Perhaps more to the point, we would normally have had access to a variety of products. Relative to this normal point of reference, the relative loss of not possessing a product helped lead to panic. As customers would normally possess a certain product, the relative loss of it created pain.
A curious detail is that small numbers can make big differences, a concept called 'diminishing sensitivity'; winning £200 does not double the joy relative to winning £100. In other words, even small numbers of a valued product can have a significant effect on one's decision making. It is because of this diminishing sensitivity customers may lean towards zero risk aversion, in other words not to risk missing out on a product; if you see it, buy it!
Implication for retailers: Use the new reference point that past panic buying did not stop most customers obtaining products.
2. Social Norms
Another Nobel Prize-winning economist, Richard Thaler, and his colleague Cass Sunstein highlighted numerous heuristics to nudge behaviour4; one of these is social norms or copycat behaviour. We are perhaps all guilty of assuming restaurants with longer queues have superior dishes or assuming that the more popular films, plays or books are worth consuming. When applied to retail, if a customer sees another purchasing a particular item, the odds are that they will follow. This can easily be exaggerated through social media and news reports.
It does not matter if this perception is factually inaccurate; perception will still hold sway. If customers do cause products to sell out as a result, this is likely to lead to a scarcity effect, where those products are valued even more than before. This can be further exacerbated if such products are perceived to be potential life savers, like hand sanitisers or medicine.
Implication for retailers: Highlight how most people are not panic buying. Foodstuffs North Island and South Island, in New Zealand, got out ahead by introducing their 'Shop Normal' campaign, which encouraged customers to 'shop normally and be kind in supermarkets'. Tesco in the UK also ran a 'Together we can do this' campaign in national media to encourage people to 'shop normally together'.
3. Uncertainty Breeds a Desire for Control
Sometimes the actions that can save lives, such as hand washing and social distancing, are simply not enough to regain a sense of control5, as they are too dependent upon the goodwill of others. Therefore, there remains a need to reduce anxiety. Stockpiling or buying more, as a form of retail therapy, is a manner for regaining control.
Scientists have found uncertainty leads to the consumption of utilitarian products (such as cleaning agents and cooking ingredients), i.e. products that give you something to do6. Shoppers are less likely to be interested in the latest fashion trends. When one adds to the mix a virus that demands hygiene, the hyper-demand for particular products can be better understood. The same scientists explore the concept of 'displaced coping', where shoppers purchased items that are of no direct relevance to their uncertainty. This may go one step to explain the recent insatiable worldwide desire for toilet paper.
Implication for retailers: Provide customers with products that may provide a sense of control, such as gardening, DIY, crafts, puzzles.
4. Game Theory
Whilst behavioural economics and nudge theory assume irrationality, game theory (which also can claim a Nobel Prize by John Nash, as featured in the film A Beautiful Mind), assumes rationality.
In the same way panic buying exists, customers may panic and create a bank run, where customers take money out en masse which then collapses a bank. In one study, it was found that asking participants to recount a time when they felt fear was found to increase the likelihood of a bank run in the form of a game format7. There was some evidence that inducing sadness was less likely to create a bank run. Given the emotion of fear led to bank runs, it is of little wonder that the fear of a pandemic may have led to panic buying.
Implication for retailers: Influence emotion to avoid fear (e.g. through in-store media and music).
5. Personality Theory
A recent global survey addressed toilet paper hoarding through personality traits8. It was found that customers who felt more threatened by the pandemic, possessed greater emotionality and greater conscientiousness (i.e. planned more) led to more toilet paper hoarding. This study may suggest that appealing to higher values2,9 (ie encouraging responsible behaviour) may not help to avoid panic buying.
Implication: Encourage long term planning and purchase of long shelf life products, to ease supplies if a second or third wave returns.
6. Concluding remarks
This is not an exhaustive causal list, but instead focuses on theories that could have at least some practical application to limit panic buying. The theories covered include areas that assume irrationality, such as behavioural economics and nudge theory, or rationality such as game theory. Other theories may sit more on the fence.
Whatever the drivers for panic buying this is a topic that retailers need to address. Even if panic buying does not reoccur within the Covid-19 pandemic, it is likely to return in some future event whether it be a natural disaster, climate change, strikes or supply shortages.
2. Lunn, P. et al (2020). Using Behavioural Science to Help Fight the Coronavirus: A Rapid, Narrative Review. Journal of Behavioral Public Administration Vol 3(1): doi: 10.30636/jbpa.31.147
3. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin
4. Thaler and Sunstein (2008). Nudge. Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Penguin
5. Taylor, S (2019). The Psychology of Pandemics. Cambridge
6. Chen, C.Y. and Pham, M.T. (2018). Affect regulation and consumer behaviour. Consumer Psychology Review 2(1): 114-144
7. Dijk, O. (2017). Bank Run psychology. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 144: 87-96.
8. Garbe L., et al (2020) Influence of perceived threat of Covid-19 and HEXACO personality traits on toilet paper stockpiling. PLoS ONE 15(6): e0234232.
In a series of posts published earlier this year, we covered the results of the dunnhumby Customer Pulse – a global study designed to explore changing consumer mindsets during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over three waves, conducted between March and the end of May, we polled thousands of people from more than 20 countries on subjects including supermarkets' responses to the outbreak, the economic outlook, and how their shopping behaviour had changed due to COVID.
At the beginning of September – three months on from the previous wave and with supply chains stable and the changing nature of lockdowns – we wanted to revisit the Customer Pulse to see what, if anything, had changed. Below are some of the standout findings from this fourth tranche of research.
Worries fade, but some still feel unsafe while shopping
One of the key things tracked by the Customer Pulse is something that we refer to as the "Worry Index" – a representation of how concerned consumers around the world are about COVID-19. Globally, the Index has now fallen to its lowest point, down from 34% in March to just 22% in September. Australia and Korea are the only countries to show a rise since the previous study, with the latter of those demonstrating the sole meaningful increase.
While worries may be dwindling generally, this can change rapidly based on local circumstances, and in-person shopping is still a point of concern for many: one third (33%) of those surveyed said they still don't feel safe from infection while shopping. Although this figure has fallen considerably since waves one (42%) and two (43%) of the Customer Pulse, this does mean it's of critical importance to retailers to keep communicating the efforts and importance of supporting colleagues and customers by focussing on positive drivers of a safe shopping experience and activities supporting vulnerable customers.
Those persistent worries should not detract from the phenomenal work the Grocery Retail industry has done to reassure Customers over the past six months. Stores (48%) continue to outpace the government (33%) in terms of who shoppers believe are doing a good job of dealing with the virus, a trend that has remained consistent across the duration of our study. Retailers in Canada, Australia and the UK are seen to be doing particularly well.
Early changes to shopping habits remain in place
The early months of the pandemic saw major changes to Customer shopping behaviours. Trips decreased, as did the number of stores being visited, while basket sizes and ecommerce usage both skyrocketed.
Six months on from our initial survey, those behaviours remain largely unaffected. While the number of trips that Customers make has slightly risen, it has not done so with any degree of significance. Broadly, shoppers have continued to stay local, and visit stores only when they need to. Only a minority are shopping new stores.
Consequently, many shoppers continue to spend more when they do shop; around a quarter (23%) say they are still spending more each trip. Basket sizes can fluctuate though and some markets saw spikes particularly sharply towards the end of September*, likely a consequence of infection rates beginning to rise once again and many shoppers wishing to stock up in the event that tighter restrictions could follow.
One the most profound changes in behaviour during the outbreak – the upsurge in online grocery – continues apace. Ecommerce now accounts for 28% of weekly shops, the same as it did in May, and relatively stable since the start of the pandemic when it stood at 30%. Many respondents plan to continue to adopt online alongside store shopping with 59% saying they plan to continue using online channel. The tipping point for online is well and truly here.
Although many of the pandemic-based trends have remained consistent during the past half year, some shifting dynamics are worth bearing in mind. In the UK specifically, while the initial outbreak saw large superstores lose much of their trade to both smaller shops and digital channels, much of that custom is now being pulled back in from small and medium stores, as well as convenience locations.
Financial worries have remained constant, and frugal behaviours are rising as a result
In regard to both their personal finances and the economic outlook for their country as a whole, many shoppers are now a little more optimistic than they were when the Customer Pulse began. That said, concern is still rife; around half (47%) of consumers have worries about their own financial situation, and more than two-thirds (67%) say the same about their national economy.
Accurately or not, this prolonged concern has translated into widespread belief that grocery shopping is becoming more expensive. Some 41% of global respondents believe that prices have risen, with many countries showing a significant increase since May. France is the only country in which this figure has declined.
The upshot of this persistent financial worry is that many Customers are now beginning to act more frugally. More than half (51%) are looking to lower-priced stores, with similar numbers increasing coupon usage (45%), opting for the lowest-priced goods (41%), and looking online for the best available sales. As we reported in June, a new age of value perception is here.
Eight important shifts will define the future for Grocery Retail
As Customer behaviours continue to flex around the impact of COVID-19, we believe that Retailers need to continue to focus on eight key shifts and business enablers as they continue to respond and future proof their business for the future. Consumer behaviours
- Value: as discussed above, demonstrating value to Customers will become increasingly important over the coming months with continued pressure on household budgets.
- Local: with shoppers preferring to stay local, range and assortment will need to be tailored as a result across formats.
- Food at home: despite recent increases in the number of people dining out, many shoppers continue to favour recreating meal experiences at home, both in cooking from scratch and food to go solutions from grocers.
- Personal wellbeing: a growing trend towards health, wellness, and better eating habits will need to be catered for.
- Online: while the sharp rise in ecommerce adoption has now begun to plateau, utilisation remains significantly higher than it was pre-pandemic.
- Digital acceleration: with more Customers heading online, a greater opportunity to engage and inspire using digital channels comes into play.
- New revenue streams: with margins growing tighter as the cost of managing the Pandemic and online fulfilment rises, Retailers will need to find new sources of revenue to offset this expenditure. New retail services, and monetising data and media are key opportunity areas.
- Efficiency and SKU consolidation: related to the above, the need for Retailers to optimise and solidify their operations will become greater too with heightened focus on optimising and simplifying assortment.
For more information about COVID-19's impact on Grocery Retail, please visit our dedicated resource hub.
* Data from this edition of the Consumer Pulse has been supplemented with recent insights from HuYu, dunnhumby's receipt scanning and rewards platform.