People have to eat. We hear this phrase as justification for a flight to the safety of food companies every time an economic calamity causes market turmoil. That’s been the case again in recent months as the COVID-19 outbreak gave new meaning to the phrase “essential retail.”
We have seen just how essential as the ecosystem of retailers, suppliers and service providers that keep America fed demonstrated tremendous resiliency when faced with a public health crisis of unprecedented proportions. The supply chain may have bent considerably under the stress of shoppers’ irrational stock-up behaviors, combined with a massive shift of demand from restaurants and institutions, but it didn’t break. That’s great news, and it reveals a U.S. food retailing industry, made up of millions of people and thousands of companies, that serves as a source of national security.
Consumers take this for granted. Access to an abundance of safe, affordable, healthy food, neatly merchandised in clean stores, is an expectation we all have, much like running water, electricity and reliable internet. So, when something happens to upset the rhythm of our lives, we want a quick return to the way things were. We long for a return to normal, which under current circumstances simply means people stop dying from an infectious disease.
That would be a great starting point. From there, getting back to normal would mean abandoning the totally unnatural act of attempting to stay 6 feet away from other people and resuming things that an inherently social species does.
Retailers have a desire to return to normal, too, especially those devastated by the fact that the products they sell are deemed nonessential. This has created the most unusual of situations, where nonessential retailers are forced to close stores and employ every imaginable cash conservation measure to ensure their survival. Meanwhile, essential retailers of food and consumables are overrun with shoppers, increasing wages and looking to bring on more workers.
This is definitely not a “normal” situation, but defining normal is extremely challenging because COVID-19 is still upon us, among us. That means shopper expectations are still being reset in potentially dramatic ways that are likely to accelerate the demise of some retailers and accelerate the growth of others.
For example, will shoppers demand enhanced cleaning procedures, and sneeze guards remain in place, after health officials give the all clear sign? What about the breadth of product assortments and store operating hours? Has COVID-19 brought a new era of SKU rationalization and reduced hours? And what role will prepared foods and self-serve departments play in food retailing’s future, a future where the behavior of an entire generation of consumers is in the midst of being reshaped by a global pandemic?
At this point, there are more questions than answers. We know that peoples’ attitudes and expectations have been greatly impacted, we just don’t quite know all of the ways how. As for the question of when things get back to normal, how about never?
The thing about retail is, it is never normal. Retail is in a constant state of change and advancement and readjustment to customers’ expectations. Sometimes those expectations are set by a forward-looking competitor that sees what others don’t and gets there first to serve customers in new ways. Other times, as in the current situation, an external force resets shopper expectations.
As for what’s on the other side of the COVID-19 nightmare, we all have our suspicions, and some will prove more accurate than others. There are a couple of things we can be certain about though: There will be no return to normal for retailers, and people have to eat.