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Six months on, how have consumer behaviours changed as a result of COVID-19?


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.

Retailer adaptation

  • 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.

[This is the fourth in a series of articles advocating the voice of the Customer in the highly competitive food-retail industry. David Ciancio is Global Customer Strategist for dunnhumby, a pioneer in Customer data science, serving the world's most Customer-centric brands in a number of industries, including retail. David has 48 years experience in retail, 25 of which were in Store Management. He can be reached at].

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