Food and Agri Tech

COVID-19 is changing consumer behaviour

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More mindful shopping with awareness for a healthy and more sustainable diet

It is no news that these times are having a vast impact on people’s lives, on businesses, and on the economy across the globe. However, how is Covid-19 changing consumer behaviour for good?

Clearly, people’s lives have slowed down during the lockdown, and so people have had the chance to rethink how they walked through life – and how they walk through the grocery store. Impulsive and ‘on the go’ shopping and eating has been replaced by more cooking at home and carefully planned weekly shopping trips. So too, the choices on that weekly shopping trip are more clearly based on people’s core values and not only what is on special offer this week, such as:

  • Health and nutrition – feeding the family with greater focus on healthier options with a 14% rise in plant-based products in our basket
  • Brand values – in a growing importance for the sustainable and community stories behind the brands

These habits have shown to be similar across many countries in northern Europe, as the UK, the Netherlands and Germany. But Germany differs in how the government is easing up restrictions way before its neighbouring countries. Therefore, it is an interesting example to see which trends could stick around even after the restrictions are lifted and grocery stores do away with queues outside the supermarkets and corner shops.

In other words: What is the new normal for consumers after the corona crisis is over?

Life has slowed down, and cooking does not only mean ‘making food’ anymore

The sudden forced lockdown and incapability to keep rushing through the daily routine made many people aware of their compulsive shopping behaviours. Especially to-go food turns out to be expensive, less healthy and unsustainable. The possibility to stay at home and to rethink where the time and money goes has brought many people back to think about their health and the possible consequences of their purchasing behaviour for the environment.

One example is the increased trend of cooking at home. This means being in full control of the food consumption, because preparing ‘fresh’ meals provides consumers the opportunity to ensure they know exactly which ingredients they use and where they come from.

A study by Hans Lohmann Foundation in Germany explains how people were drastically forced to rely on their own culinary skills now that the offerings of restaurants, snack bars and the Italian restaurant around the corner were not an option anymore.

Dagmar von Cramm, member of the foundation, states that Corona has changed the cooking behaviour of Germans for good. About a quarter of all German citizens cook more often again. And instead of frozen pizza or convenience food, fresh vegetables are being served.

The results of the study have been surprising, as news of empty freezers and shelves with instant food products made them fear the worst at the beginning of the crisis. Instead, the survey results revealed that Germans had cooked more often in recent weeks than in the time before Corona.

“And cooking does not mean ‘making food” – the expert explains the difference between defrosting and reheating convenience food and processing fresh and natural food into a proper dish.

Healthy products in the spotlight: Customers are looking closer at their diets and supermarkets are super interested in extending their range of plant-based products

Being forced to plan their weekly food consumption more carefully and doing more home cooking is encouraging consumers to think about the ingredients they use. The result is a surge in interest for healthy food products that boost the immune system, such as the so-called functional foods.

The term ‘immunity’ in relation to food searches has increased by 27 percent between February last year and March of 2019, as reported by food intelligence startup Tastewise. Organic food, plant-based food and nutritional supplements seem to fall within this category, which is probably why they received a boost in sales as well.

The reason seems to be consumers’ enhanced awareness for the importance of nutrition in regard to maintaining themselves healthy. Given the lack of pesticides and agro-chemicals in the field of organic agriculture, consumers consider it to be safer and more nutritious than conventional food.

The same is true for plant-based foods, as shown by a survey from the Federal Ministry of Food released on May 24th.  More than half of the German population (55%) considers itself to be a “flexitarian”, and maintaining a healthier lifestyle is likely a reason they step over to a plant-based diet. “A balanced diet does not include meat and sausage every day,” explained the federal minister of food Julia Klöckner, convinced, in view of the survey figures, that Germans are eating an increasingly varied diet.

In the Netherlands a similar trend is being perceived, as Brad Vanstone from plant-based cheese brand Willicroft in Amsterdam points out: “We don’t have any hard data here but the fact we’ve had an increase in sales since covid started which is some proof that customers are looking closer at their diets than before. We’ve also noticed that supermarkets are super interested in extending their range of plant-based products.”

According to estimates from the vegan food label Proveg, about 2,000 vegetarians and 200 vegans are added daily to the German population, and also here it is mentioned that more and more medical professionals and nutritionists are recognizing the health benefits of a vegan-vegetarian diet in the prevention and treatment of diseases.

Sustainable products in the spotlight: changes in purchasing behaviour become more sustainable with each week of crisis

Another reason could be the incentive of consumers to allocate their purchasing money with companies that they believe have an intention to contribute to a more sustainable future. A survey from the strategy consultancy Oliver Wyman amongst 9000 consumers of nine federal districts shows the corona crisis will permanently change the shopping behaviour of 40 percent of German consumers in regard to more sustainable shopping.

“We assume that the changes in purchasing behavior become more sustainable with each week of crisis” says Wyman retail expert Rainer Münch, referring to the fact that consumers are clearly buying less frequently, but probably with a higher appreciation and care for whom they buy from. Consumers are also prepared to spend more money on food, despite the lower household incomes, as a quarter of the respondents stated.

A picture of One Planet Pizza

Mike Hill, co-founder of the multi-award winning vegan pizza manufacturer ​One Planet Pizza affirms the same for the UK: “​Since the start of the pandemic we have noticed an increase in sales via both our retail channels and our own Direct to  Consumer service. Part of this I’m sure is that ‘conscious consumers’ are making even more purchases from ethical and environmentally friendly brands that have put sustainability at the heart of what they do. The lockdown and  ‘slowing down’ of people’s lives, seems to have encouraged people to think more about the environment and in some cases get closer to nature, raising people’s awareness of sustainability issues.”

Sustainability is one of the major megatrends par excellence, as market researchers from Facit Research published on May 26 in the German magazine ‘Food Praxis’ (Lebensmittel Praxis). 43 percent of respondents are eager to take compromises for sustainable products, for example in terms of colour and shape. For one third it is important that food is produced sustainably throughout all production steps.

Brands that have been working on the transparency of their product supply chain therefore experience the positive results for their engagement. Andrew Field, co-founder of Humble Warrior in the UK notes the same: “C19 has thrown our consumption habits into the spotlight and consumers are resetting their priorities. But the shift to living more sustainably is not new. What we are seeing now is really just an acceleration of that shift. Online buying means people can access more information about brands than ever before,  so they’re more informed before making a purchase. That’s a big change for brands. People want to see their brands back up claims and be transparent about their supply chain. That’s always been a priority for us – so we know our growers personally, we bottle in glass and donate 2% of every bottle to charity. Since lockdown, we’ve seen a 500% uplift in online sales at humble warrior, with returning customers up 35%.”

His words align with the statement from German food expert Tanja Boga in an interview with the LP magazine. As she finds, retailers and manufacturers must develop a clear stance on sustainability and translate this into a consistent strategy and communication. The communication must be comprehensible, credible and transparent. As for their products, the following applies: free of harmful chemicals and as little packaging as possible.

Life has slowed down, and so has our shopping behaviour: Quality matters over quantity

Consumers in Germany seem willing to spend a price premium for food that enhances the qualities of personal immunity and/or businesses that put it at their core to fight for a sustainable cause – and this behaviour is likely to stick even after the pandemic is over. As our comparison to countries as the UK and the Netherlands shows, this trend is not only applicable to German consumers, but it might count for countries with similar economies, as Austria, Switzerland and Scandinavia.

On the other side, the economic depression we are facing in Europe is likely to have an impact on the spending power of consumers. In a study from the GfK “COVID-19 Consumer Pulse Studie” one in five respondents in Germany fears for their job or has already lost it. This leads to a paradox in shopping behaviour, as people want to buy more expensive products while wanting to spend less money.

The outcome is to look for more value when shopping. Shopping habits are changing towards less frequent visits to the supermarket, but rather more prepared ones. Consumers are being more quality conscious when it comes to the purchase of food, but there is also an incentive to pay more for the products that are perceived of higher quality. 

It can be said that ‘mindful’ shopping is the result of these challenging times. There have been signs of emerging awareness for health and the environment in previous years, but out of this crisis situation the necessity has emerged for active and immediate change towards the shopping behaviour of consumers.

This could be the most important and long-lasting change to prevail after the cease of Covid-19 pandemic.

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