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Covid-19 is changing the way consumers shop and behave, and to keep up with this shifting environment and take advantage of the new opportunities opening up, businesses have to get inside the heads of their customers. To better understand this new consumer landscape, Jason Gibb and Tara Mei, co-founders of Bread & Jam, the UK’s largest community of food and drink entrepreneurs, hosted a webinar with Fiona Fitzpatrick, growth consultant and host of the podcast Brand Growth Heroes, on what this change means for the food and beverage industry.
How is consumer behaviour changing in the food and drink sector?
According to Fiona, the number one thing that research agencies have identified is an increased focus on health and food safety. “We’re focused on health and building immunity, and we’re looking for foods and drinks that will help us to do that,” Fiona says. “We’re also focused on food safety, whether that’s bringing gloves to the supermarket, wiping down our groceries when we get back in or having things that are already in packets - bananas are a favourite snack because you can peel it before you give it to a kid.”
Next, Fiona said that with more time to cook, food is becoming the centre of peoples’ days. “People are finding comfort in food. They’re finding rhythm; it’s punctuating their day. They’re liking to cook; they have more time to cook. They’re going back to scratch cooking. They’re going back to their roots if they’re from other countries. It’s becoming a ritual, and it also allows them to sit down with their families and to share, which is something that they didn’t get to do when we’re all commuting or arriving home at different times.” As food becomes a more communal event, there is also an increased focus on sharing recipes.
But the lockdown has also created new frictions around food. People have additional stressors, for instance, cooking every day for the family or guild around increased snacking. These areas of tension create opportunities for businesses.
How are shopping habits changing?
Research agencies agree that people are shopping less frequently. “[Shopping] has lost its joy. It has become a source of fear for many. It has become functional. People are going with a list; they’ve got their head in the list. They’re not looking up. They’re not looking to browse. They’re not looking to be inspired,” Fiona says.
However, there has also been an increase with consumers wanting to support local businesses, including online shopping at local stores. “The feeling of wanting to support local has become really apparent in the data that the research agencies are seeing.” What’s more, Fiona says tech companies like BuyMie.eu in Ireland, which allows professional shoppers to shop for and deliver food to customers, are becoming increasingly popular.
What are consumers shopping for?
Ambient foods were extremely popular in the first week to 10 days of the lockdown as consumers looked to fill their pantries and cupboards. As they felt safer, however, frozen foods began to do very well. On the other hand, loose bakery products have suffered because people don’t want to browse items that aren’t packaged and that someone else may have touched previously.
Getting into your customers’ shoes and finding new opportunities
Looking at lifestyle changes is an important way to understand what your customers are looking for from your business, Fiona says. So how have consumers’ lifestyles changed? On the positive side, consumers are going back to basics – doing DIY, gardening, cooking, learning, exercising regularly. They are also socialising virtually and watching more TV. On the negative side, consumers are experiencing tensions of being cooped up with their families and feeling unable to progress with their personal development or work life. Loneliness and anxiety are also on the rise.
Once you’ve identified these changes, Fiona recommends looking at your average consumer and working out what a day or a week in their life looks like now. “What are they feeling, how’s that driving what they’re thinking, and how is that driving what they’re doing?”
Think about what they are consuming, how they’re shopping, what they’re cooking, who they’re eating with, how they’re snacking – and how they’re feeling about all of this. “Then you can start to think about where are the opportunities for me in terms of my product range, in terms of how I can communicate, in terms of who I partner up with, in terms of how I get it to their house, how I get it to their store,” Fiona says.
Fiona also says to look beyond your traditional customer to see if there is anyone else you should be targeting. “Perhaps someone who you didn’t target before because they didn’t buy online now is buying online - maybe older people - and maybe you could target them too.”
Once you’ve worked out your customers’ needs and desires, think about your brand’s purpose, or the change you want your business to make in the world. “Let that guide you in terms of what you’re going to do next because anything that is going to allow you to deliver on that brand purpose you should be considering, and anything that isn’t going to allow you to deliver on that brand purpose you can put to one side.”
Finally, given these changes, ask yourself how your marketing strategy needs to change. “It might be as simple as your delivery method: online or direct to consumer. Or it might be something to do with a new product. It might be something to do with a claim on-pack. It might be something to do with the way you communicate through social.”
How can small businesses market effectively in the current crisis?
Fiona found that consumers are experiencing a real fatigue in the way big brands are communicating to consumers around Covid-19 – but while this formulaic approach isn’t working for large companies, small businesses have the opportunity to communicate in an honest way with their customers.
“We have a real opportunity in terms of being a small brand to speak authentically,” Fiona says. “The big messaging in terms of marketing is practical – be practical. Show them how they can improve their life in a practical way. That’s what they want to see, and those are the brand messages that have resonance right now.”
Experts in the marketing world are also warning businesses to avoid cutting spending from this area. “They are saying continue to spend as much on marketing as before, don’t let that budget be cut, because you’re going to need it,” Fiona says. “You’re going to need to be heard through all of the noise.”
Will these changes stick?
While consumer behaviours have changed significantly in recent months, there are questions over whether these changes will stick in the years to come. According to the research, Fiona says two trends that are expected to stick are buying local and shopping online.
Another question is emerging around plastic packaging. Going forward, are consumers going to prioritise consuming less plastic or buying goods that use plastic packaging as a safety measure? The early indications show that consumers are hoping to focus on recyclable packaging as soon as they can, but no one can predict exactly when this will be, but as Fiona says: “It is the multi million dollar question.”
To watch the webinar, click here.