With high streets currently in lockdown, physically shopping for anything other than essentials remains virtually impossible. As a result, some more innovative and inherently flexible specialists have been able to take advantage. These smaller shops have been very quick to up their online games, and have launched delivery services which often seem more responsive than some of their larger competitors. In addition, of course, corner shops have thrived as consumers often use an amble to the local shop for the essentials as part of their daily exercise and know that their trip will probably be much less stressful than going to the supermarket.
In fact, according to research published by Barclaycard covering 16 to 22 March, the week before tighter restrictions were put in place, there were peaks in consumer spending. Compared with the same period a year earlier, the research found that spending in specialist food and drink stores including off licences and greengrocers, had increased by 80 per cent.
What caused this? In short, people were making more journeys to the shops – not because the basket size was bigger as such, but that the media, and their own concerns that food would be scarce, created a “popping back” mentality, whereby shoppers would top up what they had already purchased in the days leading up to the restrictions. Of course, most of the shortages were temporary, but in reality, the pandemic will have caused some brands to struggle and possibly fold altogether.
But now that the initial panic buying is over, shoppers seem to have settled into new routines, and it’s clear that some retailers have coped better than others in how they have handled things as seemingly simple as making sure their customers are safe and distanced while shopping. For many it has been a test, and after the lockdown has finished, I have no doubt that some customer loyalties will be changed permanently, and that online will play a greater part in the marketing mix, though probably not to the extent it reached during the peak of the crisis.
If the situation has taught the sector one thing, it’s the importance of crisis communication and being responsive. Within a few days of shelves being emptied, all the major retailers had issued statements explaining what they were doing to manage supplies and informing customers that there was no need to panic buy. When this had little effect, policies limiting the number of items that could be purchased were introduced, as well as special shopping times for key workers and vulnerable members of society. The next stage was for retailers to limit their ranges and focus on the “big sellers” at the expense of smaller and more niche brands. This was no doubt a shock to the smaller producers, but some retailers such as Morrisons recognised this and promised to pay these suppliers immediately.
The role of advertising
The media is currently full of advertisements promising shoppers that retailers “are in this with you” and “share your difficult times”, and I wonder whether the great British public will soon become a little tired of this “coronavirus-washing”. Will the public come to see it as a jaded approach, similar to how some see retailers jumping on green issues as simply paying lip service? No doubt once the lockdown is lifted, we’ll see hundreds of adverts with people throwing back the curtains to a bright and sunny morning, but again, it’s likely consumers who will soon switch back into focusing on price and value.
Online – the saviour of the day?
Online shopping, however, has come into its own, as customers see it as a convenient and safe way to buy food. It’s fair to say that none of the retailers could have built an infrastructure that could have coped with the demand in time, and delivery slots soon filled up for weeks ahead. Some services have had to temporarily close while they catch up, and no doubt extra capacity will be built in to cope with expected demand.
We may also find that online remains a larger part of the market than it was before coronavirus visited our shores, or that some smaller brands permanently disappear from our shelves. We could also see completely unexpected trends in what and when we buy, and retailers and producers will need to keep a close eye on the data if they are to adapt to the new environment.
So where does this leave food retailing after a turbulent few months? With the benefit of hindsight, we’ll be looking back on this as a time when some retailers got it right and others less so. We’ll see it as the moment we discovered how easy (or frustrating) online ordering was, and we will remember when we discovered the local specialist shop we had previously driven by on our way to the supermarket. We may also see it as the time when we finally realised the value of our food, and how finely balanced our supply chains are. How those working in the food sector, from the farmers to the shop workers who keep the shelves full every day, are some of the real heroes in our society and how, dare I say it, we should be paying more for what is, without doubt, some of the highest quality food in the world.
For more information or to join CIM’s Food, Drink and Agriculture (FDA) group, visit: sigs.cim.co.uk/food-drink-and-agriculture/
To take advantage of our online training, visit: cim.co.uk/training/list-courses/digital-marketing-channels/
By Mark Dodds, chair of the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s food, drink and agriculture sector interest group