How Coronavirus May Affect Grocery Shopping Habits

How Coronavirus May Affect Grocery Shopping Habits
In the event of an outbreak of coronavirus, grocers must assure shoppers that they'll be safe shopping in their stores or receiving food deliveries from them

With fears about the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus on the rise as various U.S. states reveal their first confirmed cases, consumers may seek to limit their exposure to infection by making use of grocers’ existing ecommerce programs. This may present certain challenges to food retailers, however, as they struggle to keep pace with an uptick in online orders.

“As evidenced by both public concern and stock market performance, the spread of coronavirus is one of the most serious and challenging developments that retailers have had to cope with in a very long time,” affirmed Kelly Lynch, retail solutions manager at ActiveViam, a retail pricing platform provider with offices in London, Paris, New York, Singapore and Hong Kong. “To successfully navigate this outbreak, retailers need to think about how they can best restore consumer confidence and meet changing consumer buying patterns as the virus potentially spreads. This includes making sure that their online infrastructure is strong enough to cope with an influx of online orders in affected areas, making delivery strategy changes, and just simply providing customers with clear, concise information about any changes that may impact the buying experience. This type of dependable approach will provide a little additional peace of mind for shoppers, while retailers consider any overarching changes that need to be made.”

Winning Consumer Confidence

Grocers shouldn’t just focus on upping their delivery game, however.

“Home delivery and click-and-collect could be equally effective in serving consumers wishing to avoid infection from close contact when visiting stores, so long as consumers take the recommended hygiene precautions,” said Ratula Chakraborty, a professor of business management at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. These precautions include frequent handwashing, using hand sanitizer, and covering sneezes or coughs. By minimizing close human contact in these ways, food retailers “could win the confidence of nervous consumers during an outbreak,” she adds.

What happens once the immediate danger is past, though? According to Business Insider in December 2019, only 10% of U.S. consumers regularly shop online for groceries, but that could change rapidly under certain circumstances.

“Such events as outbreaks of illness could lead to a permanent change in shopping habits,” Chakraborty acknowledged. “It is entirely possible that once consumers start to trial ecommerce with home delivery or click-and-collect then they might not revert back to store-based shopping if the service is good and proves to be convenient.”

Safe Stores

For the shoppers who continue to shop in brick-and-mortar stores during an outbreak, grocers must take care to allay any fears of contagion.

 “Physical stores face a great challenge in assuring customers that they will be safe when they shop, because of the close interaction and possible contact with other shoppers and store staff,” Chakraborty observed. “One option might be for stores to extend their opening hours and thereby spread out the store’s [traffic]. Another option might be to encourage consumers to make greater use of self-service checkouts if they are available in the store.”

Grocers must be careful in how they implement such policies, however. Chakraborty advised that “it is important for any in-store measure to be quite subtle, unless quarantines or lock-downs are imminent, because otherwise there is the risk of frightening away customers, such as might have if staff started wearing face masks or protective clothing in the absence of a public health recommendation to do so.”

In the meantime, FMI – The Food Industry Association has developed a Coronavirus Preparedness Checklist and “Coronavirus and Pandemic Preparedness for the Food Industry” guide for grocers to use as resources in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak, along with a dedicated website to aid planning and communications efforts.

“FMI understand that a pandemic, if it develops, will necessitate engagement across a host of areas, including health care, store operations, supply chain, food safety, workforce, emergency management and media,” the Arlington, Va.-based trade organization said. “We want to make you aware of FMI resources available around crisis planning, and the steps we’re taking to ensure the food supply chain is actively engaged with key government agencies.” 

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