Covid-19: why supermarkets have a huge role, both now and in the future.

Posted by Joe Leeder on the 24th March, 2020
Supermarkets need to add some certainty back into people’s lives that have become instantly filled with doubt and to show that they care about their customers. If supermarkets continue to understand customers and show that they are human, the benefits may well be felt long after the outbreak is over.

There is no doubt that these are unprecedented times. With government briefings changing how we live our day-to-day lives for the foreseeable future, and with heads of state around the world enacting measures which just a few weeks ago would have felt unimaginable, there is a huge feeling of uncertainty. As the need for certainty and autonomy are engrained in our human nature this period of huge distress provides a catalyst for behaviour change, as customers seek to regain certainty and control in any way they can.

Of course, the impact of the coronavirus outbreak has been felt across the whole economy, but perhaps nowhere more visibly than in our supermarkets. Whilst in most cases business has slowed down, supermarkets are experiencing the opposite problem – a surge in demand.

It is unsurprising that supermarkets have been hugely affected by this virus, with people stockpiling and seemingly buying almost anything they can get their hands on (we all know about the toilet roll shortage!). Despite sales booming in this sector, there could be a long-lasting impact on consumer perceptions, with essential products unavailable, queues to enter and even some antisocial behaviour in some cases. Supermarkets play an integral role within society, and so when people are left disappointed and stressed while trying to shop, it is important that supermarkets act to alleviate this and bring a level of calm and certainty back into our lives.

So, what can supermarkets do during these difficult times? Innovate, using human understanding at the core:

1. React to meet the needs of customers:
During these highly anxious times for the nation, anything that supermarket brands can do to eliminate anxiety and add certainty back into people’s lives will be met with relief and praise. Customers will remember which supermarkets have found ways to help people in these moments of crisis and these memories will no doubt impact their implicit, emotional perceptions of these brands. In order to protect the heritage of their brand and to help those in need, supermarkets are having to innovate quickly to react to the needs of customers.

It is no secret that the elderly are amongst the most vulnerable during this pandemic and their needs have to be put first. After supermarkets in the UK were slandered on social media for not reacting with enough urgency to help those most vulnerable, thousands took to Twitter to make the concern known. The reaction saw supermarkets, (first Iceland and now many others) stretching opening hours to ensure the elderly are able to enter the shops first, thus avoiding the rush of people and giving them a greater chance of getting what they need. Although small in the grand scheme of things, this move has been met with huge praise through vast media coverage – a great example of a brand benefitting from listening and acting upon the voice of the customer. As most will have an elderly person in their lives that they want to see cared for during this tough time, supermarkets have responded by showing that they care. Small changes can go a long way to changing perceptions of supermarket brands and keep positive momentum going in this sector.

Some other early examples of this positive momentum include Tesco introducing a storewide restriction of only 3 items per customer and removing multi-buy promotions, in a bid to reduce stockpiling and distribute stock more fairly. Elsewhere, John Lewis & Partners have transferred 500 staff to Waitrose to cope with the demand from shoppers and Sainsbury’s are closing their cafes and meat, fish and pizza service to free up its staff for delivery demand. The list of these developments in the supermarket sector is growing by the day as supermarkets are all reacting in desperation to meet the needs of customers.

2. Guiding people through unfamiliar territory
Behavioural science has shown that customers heavily rely on familiarity when making shopping decisions. But, with empty shelves and advice about social distancing, customers need to choose new products and adapt to new ways of shopping – customers are often having to buy what they can rather than what they want. Whether it’s buying a new brand or a completely new product as it’s the only product left, to switching to online shopping due to concerns of catching the virus, supermarkets have a huge role to play in reassuring customers and helping them navigate these unfamiliar decisions.

But how can supermarkets reassure customers and ease the shopping process? Morrisons (UK) appear to be leading the way here, having changed their core purpose to “feeding the nation” in response to this virus. Morrisons have launched a call centre to enable orders to be taken over the phone for customers who do not shop online, as well as introducing a new range of easy to order food parcels and focussing all of their efforts to increase delivery slots to meet the huge demand. In-store, they’ve taken measures to protect staff by installing protective screens at all checkouts to ensure staff’s exposure to the virus is minimised. They are also offering customers a free hot drink on their way out, ensuring customers are leaving their stores on a positive note.

Elsewhere, M&S are utilising other forms of communication to provide reassurance: “Can I freeze it? Yes you can!” is the title of a very simple email that all customers received, offering an easy to read guide with advice as to the food that can be safely frozen, including the essentials: Milk, Cheese and Fruit and Veg. Such benefit led communications are extremely helpful in helping people navigate what is a hugely concerning time, adding some much-needed certainty into their lives.

As we continue to navigate through these strange times, could supermarkets look to update their in-store messaging? We know that expectations drive behaviour and satisfaction. Managing expectations of what is and isn’t available and when they will be re-stocked will have a huge impact on customers’ perceptions of the shopping experience. Currently, people are met with rows and rows of empty shelves – POS plays an important role here, providing people with up-to-date information on when to expect items back in stock or to suggest alternatives. In-store radio is another route to engage the senses and update people on deliveries of certain items, as well as promote a message of reassurance. Supermarkets need to keep customers in the loop with updates showing that the demand is taken seriously and that they are doing everything that they can to meet it. Small changes such as these could help supermarkets to provide certainty at all points in the customer journey, re-purposing elements that are readily available.

3. Looking to the future
Amidst the uncertainty during these troubled times we are really starting to see what it means to be human – it’s often the small things that we do for each other that make the difference. For supermarkets, this significant change in the way that people live their lives will prove to be a hugely difficult time and we’ve already started to see this with the massive recruitment drives currently underway by supermarkets who need more staff for stocking shelves and dealing with deliveries.

With certain product lines almost seemingly completely vanishing, perceptions of availability will be highly affected for weeks to come. But has the coronavirus pandemic identified unmet needs amongst customers, and will the behaviours seen in recent weeks will become the new norm, for example:
• Will people continue to stockpile, out of fear?
• Will this be the reinvention of the big shop?
• Will we start to see communal buying patterns, with communities pooling resources together?
• Will elderly hours be expected for years to come?
• Will we see any food trends as a result of food-swapping?
• As the virus continues to spread, will these lead to long-term shortages of certain foods?
• Will people stick to the new brands they’ve tried and are now familiar with?

We are yet to see any examples of what supermarkets are doing in the context of future-thinking, but now is a good a time as ever to be asking customers these questions and to understand what people need. Supermarkets need to add some certainty back into people’s lives that have become instantly filled with doubt and to show that they care about their customers. If supermarkets continue to understand customers and show that they are human, the benefits may well be felt long after the outbreak is over.

Meet the Author: Joe Leeder
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