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Community, sustainability and experience: the new face of consumerism

While waiting in queue for coffee on a dreary Leamington morning, a conversation between a customer and the shop owner piqued my curiosity. “At first it was difficult for everyone, but now, I think I’m starting to enjoy this quite a bit,” the customer murmurs conspiratorially. “How so?”, asks the shop owner. “Well, everything’s different now, isn’t it? Now I can’t imagine getting back to how things used to be.” The remark made me think: how different would things be during, and after, the recovery phase? More specifically, how would consumption change? A couple months ago, queuing outside cafes was practically unheard of – if we discount the brunch lines outside Coffee Architects, of course. It is unsurprising to find that COVID-19 has permanently altered consumer behaviour.

First of all, risk aversion to crowds is expected to remain high in the coming months. Businesses must therefore be able to provide customers with the assurance that pubs and restaurants, retail locations, and recreational venues are safe to visit. The psychological impact of the virus will be much more prolonged than the actual peak of viral infection. Even if new cases are in decline, customers cannot easily shake off the fear that they might contract the virus in crowded places. Richard Curtin, director at University of Michigan’s Survey of Customers, suggests that “the cognitive system we can turn on and off almost immediately, but emotions we can’t turn on and off.” This may mean that it’s necessary for businesses to rethink customers’ shopping journeys, redesign shop floors and restaurant spaces to provide more distance between customers, and move towards an online-first approach.

Consumers are turning to mindful consumption, prioritising value for money over price.

Secondly, consumer spending has fallen drastically due to loss of employment and general pessimism of the economy. Consumer spending in the last week of May was 18.5% lower this year compared to 2019. While this is an improvement from the trough in April, cautious spending is expected to continue throughout June. Not all sectors are affected equally: hospitality and travel bear the brunt of spending cuts, while groceries and household goods have benefited from an increase in spending, according to a Deloitte report. As consumers spend less, companies should reassess their product portfolios to ensure that they remain relevant to current consumer demand.

EY’s model of possible future worlds provides us with valuable insights on consumption in a post-pandemic world. One scenario is that consumer behaviour will be shaped by the desire to live in sustainable communities. Consumers are turning to mindful consumption, prioritising value for money over price. 44% of UK consumers are reported to be willing to purchase more from brands who responded well to the crisis. Hence, it is imperative for businesses to ensure that ethical factors are at the forefront of their recovery strategies going forward.

Besides a push for sustainability, post-pandemic buying habits also point towards shopping local. Consumption is increasingly geared towards supporting local businesses, as the pandemic has made it very clear that we live within communities which rise and fall together. At first, consumers flocked to local shops when supplies in major supermarkets ran out. However, as the weeks of lockdown stretched on, consumers became increasingly aware that locally-sourced products are often fresher. More importantly, buying local forges human connections consumers crave as they are isolated from regular social interactions.

With more time freed up in their schedules, customers are no longer simply looking for a nice meal out, but rather more experiential products giving them something exciting to do.

Furthermore, the ‘homebody economy’ looks like it is here to stay. Consumers are starting to embrace living in the cosy confines of their homes, and obtaining food, essentials, and entertainment online. The pandemic has amplified a wave of new consumerism focusing on home goods, deliveries, and self-care products. Restaurants unable to operate during lockdown have created their own do-it-yourself meal kits, including Leamington’s own pizza chain Birtelli’s. With more time freed up in their schedules, customers are no longer simply looking for a nice meal out, but rather more experiential products giving them something exciting to do. The sense of accomplishment in making wonky pizzas may be what we need amidst the chaos of everyday living.

Going back to the conversation in the coffee shop queue, if there is one takeaway from the pandemic, it is that it has reinvigorated demand for a slower pace of life. If the ‘new normal’ enables more flexible working arrangements such as partial work-from-home schemes, consumers may be able to free up time to enjoy slow, sustainable living. There is no going back to what we considered to be ‘normal’ before the pandemic. Unlike the 2009 financial crisis, this is not just an economic crisis, but a health emergency. As such, we have become much more vigilant of the need to take care of our health, both physically and mentally, and to maintain the connections we have with our family, friends, and local communities.


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