11th May 2020

Preparing for the emerging consumer. #50days

The tragedy of Covid-19 has brought about unimaginable loss and hardship – physically, emotionally, economically – for millions of people globally. Here in the UK, the first 50 days of lockdown are upon us. And we’re facing up to the fact that things may never be the same again, with 71% of people saying they’d be nervous about leaving their home, even if businesses are allowed to reopen and travel resumes, according to Ipsos Mori. 

Of course, there’s been a tidal wave of horizon-gazing about getting back to normal and when that might be. But the more pertinent question is: do we want to go back to normal? Or is this a chance to create a new, improved normal, as I touched on a few weeks ago here? Brands will be required to exercise empathy and act according to their values but must move with decisiveness. 

Make a habit of it

Where there’s new consumer behaviour, there is opportunity. Behavioural scientist Philippa Lally’s research shows it takes 66 days for a person to form a new habit, and after almost 50 days of lockdown, new habits are becoming more and more ingrained as each day passes. Weight training equipment sales have soared by 307%, say Research & Markets, as people try to replicate the gym experience at home; while online workouts have found space in the hearts of fitness fans – just ask Joe Wicks.  

Online shopping has also rocketed, with many who may not yet have used it – until prompted by a trigger such as Christmas – now using it regularly. Three-quarters of Brits visited the shops less and 40% shopped online more, according to Statista’s latest survey, conducted 27th April – 3rd May. 

What’s more, the online grocery market is set for a 33% hike this year, to reach an estimated value of £16.8bn, up from £12.7bn in 2019, says Mintel. The expected boost is a stark contrast to the previous four consecutive years of slowing growth, which reached a nadir last year with growth at just 2.9%. Online sales now account for 10.2% of the grocery market, up from 7.4% before the pandemic, according to Kantar’s latest figures.

The fear factor 

While no-one can predict the extent to which new habits will stick once lockdown conditions are eased, many retailers believe post-Covid-19 customers will be less inclined to casually browse round shops. Indeed, more than a quarter (28%) of consumers said the pandemic will have a permanent impact on the way they shop, according to research carried out by Retail Economics. Only 10% of consumers say they would return to normality when the lockdown eases, with 77% saying they would remain either extremely or ‘a bit’ cautious, and 13% even saying they would remain in lockdown.   

Roll with it

If the key to marketing in recessionary times is to target new behaviour, brands must quickly accept this new normal and roll with it. Those that prove they’re agile enough to pivot towards the needs of the new needs of the consumer – and provide a service during these times of upheaval – will be the ones that emerge victorious. 

Take Nike, which is learning from its Covid-19 experience in China, where use of activity apps was up by 80% at the end of the first quarter of 2020 vs the beginning of the year. This translated into strong usage of its eCommerce app, with digital sales increasing by 30%. Despite the fact that almost all its stores are now open again in China, Nike’s digital business there has accelerated “even further,” says the brand. Nike raced off the starting blocks, having rapidly adapted its long-term brand message that everyone with a body is an athlete to tell people to “play at home” during the crisis.

However, those companies that take weeks to (virtually) get around the table before anything changes will be the ones that (literally) get left on the shelf. Interesting to note, then, that two brands which emerged strongly following the 2008 financial crisis, Primark, and Lidl, have no online shopping distribution models. How will they fare as shoppers increasingly favour remote retail?

Go direct

The race for capacity in direct to consumer platforms, distribution models and supply chains has already begun, with Aldi now selling groceries online for the first time in the UK, in the form of pre-packed food boxes, priced at £24.99 including delivery and aimed at the vulnerable during lockdown. With parcels standardised and limited to one per customer, it’s difficult to see how this could translate into long-term online retail provision. Heinz has also been quick to respond: its Heinz to Home initiative offers £10 bundles of tinned foods and table sauces directly to consumers’ homes, with free shipping to NHS staff and other key workers. M&S, caught several months short of its launch onto the online grocery market with its £750m weigh-in to Ocado, has announced a tactical stopgap in the shape of top-up orders via Deliveroo, while Sainsbury’s Chop Chop service allows for top-up food baskets of up to 20 items to be delivered within 30 minutes. But these initiatives look like short-term gimmicks when stacked against the infinite possibilities.  

A blank canvas

Now more than ever, brands will be required to flex their innovation muscle, to use this moment in time as a blank canvas for reinvention. If established eCommerce operators want to grow their customer base, they will need to improve the shopping experience. Online shopping as we know it must up its game, with most products and platforms ripe for a re-think and redesign of the consumer experience. If IRL shopping trips are no longer possible or seem too risk-laden, then how can online shopping replicate that experience from the comfort and safety of home? 

Artificial and virtual reality technology is increasingly used to bring the retail experience to life for online shoppers who want to feel like they’re in-store. The ability to view a curated shelf of products based on, but not limited to, past purchase history. The ability to pick up and inspect products, to ask a virtual assistant about product ingredients and check product reviews. In some markets, this is already happening, with Nielsen pointing to the popularity of smartphone apps that leverage augmented reality to showcase how a shade of lipstick will compliment a consumer’s outfit. It’s especially big in the South Korean beauty sector, where brands and retailers are enabling consumers to experience products virtually. ?Perfect for the hygiene-conscious post-Covid world, where consumers are expected not only to want to browse less in-store but will also be reluctant to physically try products.

How to get discovered 

Encouraging consumers to try new products is notoriously difficult online, especially in terms of groceries, where people tend to reach for familiar tried and tested brands. The advice here is to broaden the brand’s ecosystem to maximise its potential for discoverability. What previously untapped platforms would help your brand reach new audiences in new ways? Take China’s WeChat, which started as a social media and messaging platform in 2011, and has since evolved to attract 1.1 billion monthly users. It’s now an online shopping platform for around one million businesses across 200 industries, where WeChat users can discover and buy products without downloading another app or being redirected to a different website. Surely it’s only a matter of time before Instagram moves to exploit its global potential as a one-click retail platform, launched in the US last autumn.  

So, if the ways people shop and the ways they think they’ll behave are going to be different in the post-Covid-19 world, the brands that tap into the changes are those likely to reap the rewards. While dinosaurs hold their breath and wait for normality to return, there will be other, faster, more agile businesses who are already looking to create the new normal and set its pace. Don’t get left behind. 

Mike Foster, Founder & Creative Director