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This is reality.

Apr 7, 2021
GroupSolver covid-19 blog

Long were the days where we roamed around carelessly, not worried about social distancing or wearing masks in public. As hard as it’s been, U.S. shoppers are accepting that this is our new reality. And even when things get better, it will never be the same as before.

Throughout the month of March, we have been analyzing closely the data from our first three pulse checks. We saw an increasing rise of worry as the weeks progressed. What started as an irregular and elevated pulse ended up becoming an anxious, racing pulse. The virus was becoming uncontrollable, and so was our ability to control our own fears. Our shopping behaviors reflected our anxious state, driven by fear and the need to assert some control over an uncertain future.

As we write this article there are over 336,000 COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and over 10,000 deaths. These numbers are rapidly evolving day by day. Never would we have imagined a few months ago that we would be facing such tremendous pain and loss.

We hope to help you make some sense of the growing uncertainty facing U.S. consumers.

We have the pleasure of working with Carrie Shea and Mary Cooper from IRI Growth Consulting for our fourth pulse check. The goal of these pulse check reports is to give you a glimpse into the minds of ~500 U.S. shoppers’ during this pandemic. In doing so, we get to see the weekly shifts in how people are feeling and what they are doing in response to this unprecedented crisis.

Pulse check on April 2: Reaching equilibrium.

Rasto Ivanic, GroupSolver: It looks like we are leveling off, both in fear of the virus and our level of adjustment in our lives.

Carrie Shea, IRI: I think the pantries are loaded and everyone is in hoard-mode.

RI: And everybody is making face masks at home. What do you think is going to happen next?

Mary Cooper, IRI: I think it is going to stabilize here. There is going to be a certain amount of people who aren’t going to embrace the fear and are just going to not get overly alarmed.

covid concern index graph

RI: Well, I have a hypothesis. I think that as we get used to this reality, this number is going to go down without people making any changes to their behavior. People will feel like this is the new normal. If you ask them what is different, they will start feeling like this is not different anymore.

CS: I think that anxiety regarding COVID and our stay at home mandates might go along the same model as how we process grief. In the beginning there’s denial, and then there’s pain, and then anger. I think we are in the pain and anger stage of COVID right now. I don’t think we have hit the depression stage yet, where people start to feel loneliness and the isolation gets to them. I think that is going to happen as the virus touches more people in their personal circles and as the stay at home orders go into their second month. I worry the depression phase could last a long time. I think we will have to wait until the beginning of summer before we start to see a sustained upward optimism, reconstruction and recovery. Of course, that all assumes we don’t get a second wave of this virus in the fall.

RI: I was expecting to see some more meaningful shift to online purchasing of groceries. I just don’t see this moving as fast as I would expect. Do you have any explanation for why that’s not moving?

CS: I think there is still a concern about having product delivered to the home in this time of COVID. People have fear over packaging, and many are afraid to touch things that are dropped on their doorstep. Who else touched it? Could they have been sick? How do I need to disinfect the packaging? There are also a lot of out of stocks on Amazon (or there were a week ago) and I think people want product in their hands and cart and trunk and pantry now. They don’t want to wait.

MC: I think that’s right what you are saying. More people are starting to look into those systems once they are set up. There will be more movement towards online options. I think there is more fear in the retail stores. You are starting to see more masks and safety steps made by the retailers.

RI: I was looking at the last three pulse checks where we were asking them about online grocery shopping. Two weeks ago, we had no change between shopping online before and after COVID-19. This is the first time seeing a small margin of people shopping online more than before.

grocery shopping behavior graph

RI: I am also looking at the other charts from the last three surveys. Two weeks ago, 47% of people told us they were not doing delivery or take-out from restaurants. Last week, we had 45%. This week, we saw the most meaningful drop. It went from 45% to 38%. Fewer people are telling us that they are not doing delivery or take-out. Are people maybe starting to get bored of eating at home?

CS: I think it could be promotional. I know that Papa John’s is doing a whole campaign around no human touching your package before arriving at your door. The other thing that might be going on is that there’s been a lot more education to consumers about how cooked food is not going to be contagious. The packaging could be, so COVID related websites are recommending consumers to go outside with a plastic bag, get your food from the delivery person, take the food out of the packaging right away, put the food into your own container or plate, and throw all the packaging away before you even bring it to your house. Sounds like a big ordeal, but I guess the complicated ritual is giving people comfort that the food itself will be fine.

RI: This is going to be fascinating to watch going forward. Maybe this is just a first glimpse of our ability to adjust to the situation, adjust to the risks of going out and getting food, and making it work.

meal habits during pandemic graphs

CS: I think so too. Are you more scared of shopping at the store, or are you more scared of someone delivering your food? 93% of the people said they are afraid to shop! That is an extraordinary number and has fundamentally changed the shopping experience. What was once a wind down activity or an escape activity or at worse a procrastinated must do activity, has become a driver of fear in consumers.

RI: Let’s talk about that. It is a shocking number. When we asked shoppers what they expect about grocery shopping post-coronavirus, almost all the answers are about cleanliness and keeping distance and bigger spaces. This is fascinating.

fear of grocery shopping due to covid graph

CS: I agree. I’m not sure the grocery shopping experience will ever be the same. We were so accustomed to these beautiful, fresh perimeter sections of the store, free access to touch, feel and smell the fruits and vegetables. I think a lot of that is going to go away in the future. I think we are going to see a lot of individually wrapped fruit, more plastic barriers between the food and the shopper. People are fearful today and will demand a lot more cleanliness in the future of the retail space.

MC: I could see movement towards salad bars and hot food bars being served by somebody into containers rather than self-serve. I think a lot of retailers are going to really think through how they are going to deal with some of the new safety issues.

RI: I am looking through the answers, beyond the top 10, and it is very difficult to find anything that doesn’t talk about sanitation or cleanliness. People also talk about being more stocked up. I think that the recent experience is that you are not getting what you want when you want it.

CS: We were always the land of abundance. Could you ever imagine going to the store and not finding toilet paper on the shelf or not getting the canned good that you want? It’s just unheard of in our lifetime. Now, especially for the younger consumers, this has got to be a bit of a shock for them, and I suspect they will never be quite so cavalier about their shopping.

answers about difference in grocery shopping experience due to covid

RI: We asked half of our respondents to tell us about what they expect about restaurants. As you probably imagine, we are getting the same type of answers about being cleaner and having more space. I think, clearly, our respondents are living in the moment. This is that fear of contamination being at the top of their minds right now.

MC: Maybe servers will wear masks and gloves too. I wouldn’t be surprised if that becomes commonplace.

answers about difference in restaurant experience due to covid

RI: The longer we go through the COVID-19 crisis, the more important the economic impact becomes. This is the first survey where economic impact ranks number 1. The other thing is that we are getting more agreement of people worrying about the lethality of the virus. I think that is also a sign of where we are in the process. That will probably not change much unless something major happens with the flattening of the curve.

CS: I think that’s right. It’s hard to separate economic crisis from the healthcare crisis. I think short-term stimulus can help pantry-load, but longer-term we need a solution for feeding the millions of unemployed people in our country.

answers about worries towards covid

RI: Maybe that’s why the number 1 answer of what people will do when this crisis is over is “I will continue to work hard”. Maybe that goes along with the economics and hardship that we expect is going to happen to us even after the epidemic is resolved.

MC: There’s a lot of industries that are going to be disrupted by COVID-19. Some of the population are going to demand modifications and they are going to be costly for industries to address some of those moving forward. There will be businesses that go away or change dramatically and other new businesses which will emerge.

IdeaCloud™ things people will do once covid is over
IdeaCloud™

~

Carrie Shea is a managing partner at IRI Growth Consulting with a wealth of experience in growth consulting and consumer insights. Mary Cooper is a senior principal at IRI Growth Consulting with a focus on CPG and Retail. Rasto Ivanic is a founder and CEO of GroupSolver.

Do you have a customer insight question you would like solved? #FridayInSight has your answer! We’ll design a study, collect data on the GroupSolver® platform, and share with you a free report with our findings. Contact us at marketing@groupsolver.com.

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