After two months of coronavirus pandemic lockdown, there is no doubt we face something of a permanent shift in consumer behavior.
Just consider those studies that show it takes between 40 and 70 days to change habits. For the record, those studies focused on active participation in new habit formation. In the case of dealing COVID-19 and nearly 50 days of forced behavior shifts—there’s little doubt there will be a long-term impact.
It’s difficult to say exactly what the new consumer will look like before the lockdowns nationwide are totally lifted. Even so, we can make at least two assumptions related to how the current crisis will shift consumers’ demands and needs in regard to foods and beverages.
After prolonged periods of anxiety, consumers seek comfort and items that are comforting. Naturally, with food this immediately suggests comfort foods.
While traditional American comfort foods such as meatloaf, mac and cheese, chili, and pie may all come to mind, it is important to remember the comfort zone for many consumers has significantly widened. This is particularly true for younger consumers. Comfort food may as easily encompass pho, bao buns, and empanadas. What ties all of these foods together is the degree of satiety they provide as well as approachability and familiarity. These formats can be used as basis for moderate innovation, creating safe experimentation with consumers.
The last two months have been rife with uncertainty for nearly all consumers. This lack of certainty will drive most consumers to look for control in all aspects of their life—including food and beverage selections.
Within the food and beverage category, choice and selection represent control and the choices consumers will make are going to be driven by the information provided. Here, clean labels, transparency, certifications, science-backed health claims, source of origin and traceability will all play a role in consumers need for control.
Packaging communication needs to ensure this information is easy to find and clearly communicated. Product ingredient and preparation information also will resonate with consumers who have spent two months building or honing their cooking and baking skills at home.
From a trends perspective, think of the lockdown as a time when very definite guardrails were immediately erected around consumers. Foods, beverages, ingredients, and cuisines that were familiar and appealing to them before will remain appealing.
If follows that behaviors that were new, or items that were largely unfamiliar with low trial will find little traction during the next six months. Additionally, items that do not appeal to the need for comfort and control also will lag in growth and resonance. By contrast, trends with strong adoption and high levels of adoption by consumers will continue to grow and likely accelerate. Across both the foodservice and retail channels, these trends include bowls, functional foods, and plant-forward/ plant-based offerings.
For the industry, the next six months likely will be a period of limited innovation beyond those trends that had flourished prior to the lockdown. Innovation pipelines, however, should continue to be filled in preparation for the time—likely 12 to 18 months from now—when the economy slowly returns and consumers begin to relax back into their “normal” behaviors.