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Grocery shopping during lockdown and beyond

Julie Vigne Senior Research Director 06/18/2020

What changing shopping behaviours mean for brands

The way we shop has changed dramatically. Is it time to rewrite the rule book?

The way we shop for groceries and essentials has been turned upside down in the last few weeks. Online shopping continues to increase, despite struggles with booking a delivery slot. And it looks like we are reverting to weekly shops.

As lockdown eases, how will shopping behaviours adapt, and what does it mean for brands?

The way we shop – where, when, how much, what – is and will largely remain driven by our needs. In the last few years, convenience drove our shopping behaviours, as well an increased interest in more sustainable ways of shopping more recently. However, suddenly safety became the priority, and everything changed, from the way we, shoppers, thought about buying grocery, to the way it was made available to us.

So, we changed the way we shopped, more by necessity rather than by choice.

As our behaviours have adapted to follow government advice, we have invariably picked up new habits, but will behaviours change permanently or are we just responding to imposed changes from environmental factors? As lockdown eases and the way we work, socialise, go to school changes, how will shopping behaviours adapt, and what does it mean for brands?

What brands need to consider going forwards

1. Shopping missions

Tesco boss Dave Lewis declared at the end of April that the weekly shop was back in fashion.  This goes against a trend towards top-up and meal-for-tonight missions which retailers and manufacturers have been working hard to serve better for years. A move back towards more weekly shops, often more planned, often more ‘sensible’ shops, has implications in terms of NPD, merchandising and channel strategies for manufacturers and retailers alike.

A recent study from Waitrose shows that almost half of us report eating differently: more snacking, more eating together at the table as a family, more cooking, more meal planning. This way of eating lends itself to weekly shops. But when we start commuting again, juggling after school activities and face-to-face socialising, will we still cook as much and be as organised? Or will top-up shops fit in our lives better? And how will this impact where we shop?

2. Channels

According to Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe, ordering groceries online is likely to stick post Covid-19.  The crisis has accelerated the move towards online, as retailers increased their capacity. However, this came with its own challenges for retailers. Ocado chief financial officer Duncan Tatton-Brown warned investors that despite a 40% increase in revenue year on year, the company is no more profitable than before the pandemic.

But as supermarkets struggled to keep up with demand in the first few weeks of lockdown, shoppers looked at alternatives and discovered or re-discovered other ways to stock up: from local distributors or farmer shops focussing their marketing messages on offering local, good quality goods and a sense of community to box and subscriptions providers or even new direct-to-consumer channels.

As shoppers embrace these new channels, where they choose to shop in the future will highly depend on their changing priorities but also on availability.

So, will we remember that the independent convenience store was the only place we could find pasta in late March and will it make a difference?  Will we still support our local, more premium, independent suppliers when we can go out and treat ourselves to meal outs again?

3. At fixture behaviour

Shoppers are creatures of habit. We all shop on autopilot most of the time, System 1 thinking. It’s only when our usual shopping routine is disrupted that we have to engage our System 2 brain and really think about what we need and want to buy.

Being faced with bare shelves in supermarket was clearly a disruption! Suddenly, we had to deal with quite dramatic out-of-stock-situations for a lot of products. It made us look at what was on shelves a lot more and as a result, made us consider new brands, formats or even categories.

We might have discovered new SKUs that could now become our go-to products. And we might have become a bit more adventurous. If spending a bit more time comparing products and trying new ones had positive outcomes, is it something we could keep doing, making stand-out and conversion at fixture more important than ever?

4. Decision Making

Retailers and manufacturers have done a great job keeping shelves stocked up in their role to ‘feed the nation’. Only 1 in 10 shoppers reported empty shelves in supermarkets mid-May, down to half reporting out-of-stocks during the last week of March.  But this is only half the story. In order to make it happen, retailers have streamlined their range and promotional offers. So, although now you can find bagels in store, you might not find your usual brand or flavour. A lot of the usual multi-buy offers have also disappeared. With fewer SKUs and promotions, and new brands on shelves, the overall category landscapes have changed and keep changing. Shoppers can’t rely on their habitual brand and price decision shortcuts and could create new preferences and habits.

According to the ONS, cost of basket was up 4.4% in mid-April from just before lockdown measures a month prior. As 2 in 5 report lower disposable income since lockdown, price and value are bound to be more top of mind and a key decision driver for many food and drink categories. We might be willing a bit extra to buy our usual bagels for a few weeks but will it last? Or will we start considering our options – brand, pack size – to keep to our budget?  Do we even need bagels or could we do without?

5. The rise and fall of categories

And sometimes, we had to deal with the whole category being gone (bread, pasta etc.). But human beings are highly adaptable and we learnt to think on our feet.  No bread? No problem, I’ll just bake some myself! Now, where do they stock flour?

A recent study by Tesco found that 1 in 5 cook every meal from scratch since lockdown, impacting the types of product bought. Minimising waste may well be another factor and if cooking from scratch continues, what does it meal for the ready-meal category for example? What would be its role and place at fixture. A shift in cooking habits would not only have an impact on range and NPD but also on messaging for many categories. Likewise, could we see a sustainable increase in baking ingredients or will people gradually go back to packaged bread and cakes bought from coffee shops once open again.

6. Path to purchase

Putting it all together, any of these shifts, on their own or combined, will have an impact on the path to purchase, where purchase decisions are made and, as a result, where manufacturers should focus their marketing spend.

A move towards bigger, more planned shops, possibly linked to more cooking from scratch could shift decisions more towards the home.

Meanwhile, learnt behaviours at fixture could mean shoppers will be more impulsive at point of purchase, but also compare SKUs and brands more, meaning packaging, merchandising and in-store activation would have more of an impact.

In this rapidly changing environment, driven by external factors and government directives as much as personal circumstances and heighted worries about safety and financial security, it is more important than ever for brands to understand how their categories and brands fit in people’s lives. They need the tools and information to drive category, retailers and channels conversations  both internally and – critically –  with retailers to ensure the right products are on the right shelves during lockdown and as it eases.

Get in touch to speak to one of our retail and shopper experts and find out how we can help you understand shopper’s needs, attitudes and behaviours during the pandemic, and going forward.

To get further information on consumer sentiment and behaviours during the Covid-19 crisis, our Coronavirus Data Tracker is updated on a daily basis.

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