Shopping these days feels like making a journey in a different dimension in time, dominated by a strain of nasty Corona virus. It is greatly an unfamiliar, ambiguous dimension that forces consumers to divert from their habits and modify usual forms of shopping behaviour. Their considerations while shopping may change as well. Since the vast majority of shops and stores are closed, we are left to talk about shopping for food and other products for the household (e.g., in supermarkets, minimarkets and neighbourhood grocery shops). In other words, shopping is focused on necessities for maintaining some normalcy in daily living at home.
Time and distance become major factors in the planning and conduct of a shopping journey in a supermarket. Reducing the length of time spent in the store and keeping distance from other shoppers are imposed as constraints on the shopping trip; although they may not be formally enforced, they are very much recognised and felt by consumers. These factors hover above other choice considerations (e.g., format or version, ingredients, brand, and price), likely to cause shoppers to shift their priorities for some of their choices or to reconstruct their preferences on the fly.
Consider, for example, selecting fresh fruits and vegetables from trays in bulk. In normal times, the shopper may try to make an optimal selection, say of tomatoes — scan over the pile for tomatoes that look nice and red enough, pick a few for closer inspection of appearance and touch (but do not squeeze), return if the tomato has some defects on its surface and pick another, and so on until the needed number of good tomatoes is selected. This process is not easy to execute now. First, it is not desirable that two people will pick their tomatoes at the same time side by side, so one has to stand back and wait from a distance or choose another produce to select from. Second, the shopper may not afford to be too picky because each tomato one inspects takes more time and the shopper also may not want to touch too many of them. Hence shoppers would be more lenient and willing to trade-off time with the quality of the produce selected. Not everyone has the patience to carefully select fresh produce, and in these Corona days probably most shoppers have even less of it.
When choosing packaged products from shelves in the aisles, shoppers are likely to exhibit a stronger tendency to rely on habit and to buy the familiar brand one most frequently uses. These could be food products (e.g., pasta or rice, mustard, chocolate), cleaning substances or personal care products. To start with, most shoppers probably do not want to stay in a narrow corridor for too long, especially if another shopper or store employee is present in the aisle. Hence it is likely that the shopper will check first if the usual brand and format is available from a product category, and if so, pick it and quickly move on or out of the aisle. If the familiar or preferred product is not in sight (e.g., out of stock), the shopper may pick the nearest option that seems satisfactory and continue with the shopping journey. This seems less the time to explore new options or to search for the most desired brand, content or flavour of a product. Shoppers would be inclined even more than usual to apply a ‘satisficing’ choice strategy.
Similar behaviour will probably be found also at the department of refrigerated dairy products, though shoppers may take a little more care in selecting items because it is fresh produce. However, it is reasonable to believe that they will be more flexible in their choices with attributes of desire (e.g., flavour, add-ons) than need (e.g., sugar, fat). At service counters of delicatessen (e.g., cheese, salads), meat and fish, shoppers seem to be reluctant to join a line with three or more other shoppers standing before them, so they move on, and may return later or give up. Yet, since in recent weeks the entry of shoppers is monitored at the door (e.g., allowing for no more than ten shoppers to be in-store at any time), crowding of more than three people is quite unlikely near any display, counter, shelf or refrigerator. If crowding does occur, shoppers appear to quickly disperse by their own will and move to another display until the area nearly clears.
A supermarket can be a remarkably quiet place these days as everyone is pre-occupied with completing his or her shopping — allowing for brief amicable exchanges among the shoppers or with staff, no fuss, little arguments. Shoppers may come more prepared for their shopping trip, by relying for instance on a shopping list (for greater efficiency), but this is truly a matter of personal discretion. Ordinarily, research has shown that shoppers in large stores like supermarkets develop a stronger attraction to the cashiers as they progress in their shopping journeys, trying to make their journeys shorter. But now shoppers can be expected to develop such an attraction sooner, perhaps from the moment they enter the store, even for consumers who largely enjoy to shop, search and select products for home.
The use of means for protection from contracting COVID-19 can make shopping further less convenient. At the entrance, a shopper may wear disposable gloves offered by the supermarket, after cleansing the hands of course with alcoholic gel (hand sanitizer). However, some nylon gloves seem to be sticky, and may also get torn after several hand gestures (e.g., it is not easy or comfortable to pick product items with the gloves). If one does not use them, the shopper better repeat cleansing the hands with alcoholic gel intermittently. Face masks, now mandatory in some countries, additionally make the shopping experience less pleasant (e.g., when talking with service staff, eyeglasses get covered with the steam of breath so it may be better to remove them). These protection means, some if not all, are necessary for protecting our own health and of those around us, but unfortunately they might disrupt and impede the shopping process.
- Consumers who wish to avoid the hurdles of this shopping experience altogether can order their required products for delivery to their homes. Albeit, there have been repeated complaints by consumers that deliveries can take up to ten days.
Shopping in a minimarket store or a grocery shop has its own strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side, a shopper is likely to be exposed to fewer people, staff or peer shoppers, inside and outside the store during his or her visit than in a large supermarket store. On the negative side, however, a minimarket or grocery shop is usually more condensed, with narrower aisles than in a supermarket. Hence social distancing is a greater challenge in these smaller stores: one could be in closer vicinity to another person for a moment or two in-store, and maneuvering to clear the way is more difficult.
The puzzled consumer may have to think more deliberately about a shopping strategy, such as: (1) make short visits to buy a small number of most necessary items (e.g., about five) at the smaller store closer to home just to fill-in supplies at home, and avoid the larger store hubs; (2) make longer and less frequent visits to a large and more spacious supermarket store for renewing the stock of a larger variety of home supplies. Shortages in some products at stores (e.g., toilet paper, pasta, eggs, milk) may require shoppers, nevertheless, to visit more stores than desirable during a week to find the missing needed products. The strategy does not have to be innovative or so different from how consumers planned their shopping until this crisis. Yet the situation and restrictions imposed by government introduce significant constraints that force consumers to pay attention to details they did not consider material before and to calculate their steps for shopping more meticulously.
At this time (mid-April 2020) the vast majority of stores and shops for a variety of products and services are closed for business. For example, on a circular street of premium shopping in Tel-Aviv, with about a hundred active outlets of stores and shops (e.g., fashion, homeware, jewellery, bookshop, hairdressers, and a bank branch), about 15% were open to customers-shoppers in the afternoon in the fourth week of March, having a semi-lockdown imposed. At the end of that week an extensive lockdown went into force. Note that stores never closed on this street in mid-day until this time. This scale of closure was not experienced even during war conflicts of the past thirty years. In the last three weeks the greater part of outlets are completely locked while some 10%-15% maintain some level of presence on premises (e.g., receiving customers by phone appointment only). Some of those that are locked leave a note with a message that they are temporarily closed and others provide a phone number for enquiries and receiving orders.
When more stores and shops re-open, hopefully as soon as next month, consumers will probably remain cautious, still subject to some restrictive code of behaviour. Therefore, it is likely that consumers-shoppers will follow patterns of behaviour similar to some degree to those described above. It is too early to predict, however, the pace and extent at which consumers will return to be engaged in shopping. It may be a function of priorities set by consumers and their level of confidence, vis-à-vis how many and what types of commercial outlets the government gradually allows to re-open.
Rigorous research, based on observation and surveys, will be most welcome in order to achieve well-founded understanding of the effects of the Corona pandemic crisis on shopper behaviour. Data from directly interacting and observing consumers about their dispositions and behaviour can be supplemented by recorded data on their actual purchases (i.e., their shopping ‘baskets’). Such research will study and substantiate, for example, the changes in shopping tactics and patterns of behaviour effected by the pandemic and public policy (as suggested in the propositions above, based partly on casual observation and personal experience). The research may enquire specifically about the trade-off between taking measures to reduce risky exposure (i.e., avoid virus contagion) and the quality of choices made, or implications of ‘stock shopping’ (i.e., buying varied products in large quantities to create stocks at home).
Shopping in a food store, large and small, can be a tiring and stressful experience under the restrictions of the Corona pandemic and fear of contracting COVID-19. However, there is good reason to believe that consumers will return by and large to their older shopping practices once the crisis is over — consumers are able to adapt well to changing circumstances, and it should be furthermore easier to adjust to familiar conditions from the near past. Nevertheless, the re-adaptation will not be quick or complete as the process of recovery is expected to be gradual and we do not know when it will start and at what pace it will occur. Consumers will probably remain more alert than before, staying ready for more ‘surprises’ like resurgence of the pandemic; this will likely have impact on shopping of any kind, and moreover on receiving services one-to-one. Unfortunately, concerns that arise from economic consequences of this pandemic crisis may replace concerns about the virus itself and extend the recovery of shopping behaviour and customs. Welcome to the Corona dimension.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
Feel Well. Keep Good Health.