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Trust Insights Council: Coronavirus Triggers Big Changes in Consumer Behavior

Isolation and social distancing brought on by coronavirus are causing unprecedented changes in consumer behavior.

How the food system adapts to these changes is critical, reports CFI’s Trust Insights Council. The council, which brings together food industry thought leaders and social scientists to explore emerging consumer trends, discussed the impact of the virus during their recent call.

Buying patterns have shifted dramatically as people stock up on supplies, reported Carl Perrson, senior director of global cross-category consumer insights at PepsiCo. “It really is a reversal of everything we learned about shopper trends over the past decade or so,” he said. “Everyone has shopped the perimeter instead of the aisles, and now it’s the opposite of that and people shop the center aisles. I imagine there’ll be a great awareness of the notion of preparation and of keeping a supply.”

In addition to hand sanitizers and toilet paper, shoppers are passing over fresh items to fill their carts with canned and frozen foods.

But the council says there’s something else folks are buying during their supply runs – guilty pleasures. Sales of treats like chocolate, cookies and beverages are also increasing. If social distancing measures continue for long, the council predicts people will seek out little indulgences to bring them joy during anxious times.

The Trust Insight Council has been meeting once a month since December for roundtable discussions. Their analysis can highlight early signals of emerging trends that food companies can use to make strategic decisions.

Members said during the March roundtable that recent activities are accelerating a “homing” trend that has been building over the last few years.

“The world is a bit of a scary place. The home has been a very comforting spot where we can get all of our entertainment and we can get just about anything delivered to us. Your home is your sanctuary,” said Susan Schwallie, executive director of the NPD Group Food and Beverage practice.

Several factors are driving this at-home economy, Schwallie said. Millennials see food as a social occasion and like to gather in their homes to share food with friends. Meal delivery services make it possible to eat restaurant food at home. Streaming video and home delivery services means people don’t have to go out to be entertained.

“That notion of cocooning and the search for safety, that’s been a long-term trend and the more chaotic the world gets, people search for these notions of what they know and trust. My hunch will be that this just reinforces that,” Persson agreed.

Companies are fast-tracking technologies for direct-to-consumer sales and personalization of food products. Restaurants and retailers are also looking to China for automation processes that reduce human contact.

The council also discussed the importance of transparency for the food system in order to build trust in the food supply when consumers are concerned about health and safety.

As the situation around the world changes rapidly, so does the potential impact on the food system.

“It’s going to take us a little bit now to see how this evolves and whether this does lead to fundamental changes in culture,” said Ujwal Arkulgud, founder of MotivBase and a member of the CFI Board of Directors. “We know things are going to get worse than where it is now. We just don’t know the degree to which that will happen. Culturally and in terms of the impact of businesses, it’s a wait and watch game.”

To learn more about the Trust Insights Council, contact Terry Fleck.