“It’s like an epiphany”

The coronavirus crisis is changing every aspect of our lives – including our shopping habits. Dr. Robert Kecskes is a trade expert working for the market research company GfK and has been carrying out research into consumer development for many years. Here he explains why the pandemic can become a turning point for consumers.

Dr. Kecskes, what impact is the coronavirus crisis having on the consumer climate in Germany?

Dr. Robert Kecskes:

The consumer climate has collapsed; twice in fact. This is what makes this crisis so complex. In the three weeks prior to the shutdown in mid-March, there was a panic phase. This was the time when people were stockpiling, buying excessive quantities of products such as toilet paper, flour and pasta. This was the time when there was a strong fear of potential infection. We are now in a phase of adaptation, meaning that the fear concerning our physical integrity is no longer so dominant. Instead, fears concerning financial welfare are growing. The delayed economic shock is on its way.

What does that mean?

Dr. Robert Kecskes:

People's willingness to consume is declining; instead, the savings ratio is rising slightly again. Shopping habits are fundamentally changing.

Are people visiting the supermarket less frequently?

Dr. Robert Kecskes:

At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, this was not something we noted, interestingly. On the one hand, this was because many people had fully stocked up, which affected the frequency of their shopping trips. As a consequence, stockpiling meant that some products were simply no longer on the shelves. Consumers then had to go to other supermarkets to find certain items. From a purely quantitative perspective, this even led to an increase in shopping trips. In the meantime, the shelves are once again well stocked. In times when fear of infection with the virus is high, the psychological element prevails: where do I feel safe? Overall, we can state the following: People are making fewer shopping trips than they did before the coronavirus crisis. They are also buying in larger quantities – the trend is once again moving toward the classic weekly shop. There is a very simple reason for this.

What is it?

Dr. Robert Kecskes:

If schools are closed, then so are school canteens. The same is true of companies – their restaurants have been closed for a long time. All this means that people are almost exclusively eating at home. For this reason, we can see clear increases in sales in the food sector. Certain categories which otherwise would typically be used “out of home” have also gradually become more important.

Does this mean that food producers are profiting from the crisis?

Dr. Robert Kecskes:

Initially, yes. Compared with the previous year, sales increased in the double-digit percentage range. People are cooking for themselves more often, so they are buying more food. The details make for an interesting read. During the panic phase before lockdown, sales of own brands increased more sharply than the more costly manufacturer brands. This trend reversed once lockdown began. One explanation for this is that people are prepared to buy themselves something nice. Their motto? If I have to cook for myself or eat at home, then I want it to be good. The demand for good quality and sustainably manufactured products is not going to fall because of the pandemic.

What are the consequences of this?

Dr. Robert Kecskes:

People are saving money by not eating at restaurants at all, or much less frequently, meaning that they are prepared to invest in food. This is good news for all producers. As previously mentioned, the delayed economic shock is on its way. It could therefore well be the case that the price war for certain food products will intensify in the next few months, because consumers' purchasing power will decline more steeply than their expectations of quality. And this crisis has made something else clear.

What’s that?

Dr. Robert Kecskes:

There is strong solidarity with the local area. On the one hand, this affects social aspects such as friends who could not meet up for a long time. But it also applies to us as consumers. This crisis has shown everybody how much our consumer behaviour is now defined by more than sheer quantity. This triggers great uncertainty. It’s like an epiphany: many of us are becoming aware that things cannot go on like this. Ever more, ever further, ever cheaper – this logic of increase is being replaced by a logic of discovery and by the question: how can I strengthen communities, which in turn make me more resilient in the face of such crises? This clearly involves the consumption of regional products, even when they are sometimes more expensive than previously purchased items. People are looking for a narrative for the future, an optimistic sense of how things might be post-coronavirus. Anyone who can satisfy our need for new, more sustainable ways of living alongside one another will find success over the medium to long term.

What does that mean for shopping habits?

Dr. Robert Kecskes:

Bringing in the obligation to wear a mask marks a clear turning point. This symbol increases the feeling that supermarkets are places where infection with the virus is possible, even if the infection rates have fallen. Retailers have significantly cut back their special offers and displays. They are zeroing in instead on basic supplies. The feeling of shopping being an experience has suffered.

Regardless of the products, we are shopping in a completely different way: we wear masks, we maintain a distance, we don’t use cash. Which of these habits will we keep in future?

Dr. Robert Kecskes:

Online shopping, including for food, will become more important. In this respect, we are already seeing a drastic increase. The same applies to cashless payments. These will not completely disappear, even if one day there is no risk of infection. I doubt whether people will continue to keep a two-metre distance when queueing. Physical proximity is essential to human survival, and this also applies when shopping. One thing is certain: it’s unlikely that we will find many bargain bins in the future.