“We are in the middle of one of the biggest social experiments in our history and it will be fascinating to see how we change as a result of it,” says Rory McDonnell, Bord Bia’s head of strategic planning, as he pores over mountains of real-time data looking at how consumers have responded to the coronavirus crisis.
He is not wrong. As social experiments, they don’t get much bigger than this. In a matter of weeks we have become a slowed-down and fearful nation of bakers and epidemiologists, stuck in our homes and willing to share our personal data far and wide as long as it gives us an edge in an epic battle against an invisible enemy.
Rather than tracking consumer sentiment, which looks at how people think and how they think they might act in a given set of circumstances, McDonnell and his research team at Bord Bia have been looking at what consumers have been actually doing and what they have been buying.
The research is ongoing but they have already identified some key trends, the first of which they have labelled “shielding”.
In recent years health and wellness have been integral to modern life, but our health focus has intensified in recent weeks as we focused less on proactive health management, which has us eating and drinking foods we think might make us fitter and stronger, and focused more on protective health management, which sees us seeking foods to keep us well in the here and now.
Google searches for 'food' and 'immune system' have spiked since mid-March
The chocolate-soaked protein bars which might possibly have made us lean ahead of the summer are out and have been replaced by immunity-boosting shots of green vegetables and fruit.
While the current crisis may abate, McDonnell points out that a cure for coronavirus will remain elusive, and there is no certainty as to how immunity might work. There is no vaccine and a huge awareness that if this terrible thing can happen today, it can happen tomorrow too. That bleak picture will “create great desire for shielding and self-protection”, he says, and foods which can protect our defence systems are growing in popularity.
The report says that as we move into the post-Covid world, “consumers may well pay more attention to the science of food functionality [and] may want nutrition that helps boost their immunity.”
Certainly if search engines are anything to go by, that is what we have been looking for over the past several weeks, with Google searches for “food” and “immune system” spiking since mid-March.
Immune-building vitamins and minerals including zinc, elderberry and vitamins C and D and are just some of the substances Irish people have researched to establish their immune-enhancing potential.
But, the research warns, before brands rush out and starting making claims about their products’ benefits for the immune system, they will need to “be mindful” that in a world of fake news, their “message needs to be actually true”.
Always good advice to be honest.
“Consumers looking for ways to boost their immunity might explain why sales of orange juice went through the roof initially, although that has died down as people have come to accept that orange juice won’t protect them from Covid-19,” McDonnell says.
“What was happening was people were trying to give themselves an edge over the virus and while there has been a fall-off in juice and vitamin C sales, immunity and products which promise to boost it will be on people’s radars for a while yet.”
Another trend Bord Bia has spotted is comfort cooking. As the lockdown was imposed, people moved away from fast foods and ready meals towards slower cooking and making childhood recipes and takeout-style dishes to bring familiarity to an unfamiliar world. Sales of “comfort carbs” such as pasta and noodles climbed significantly over recent weeks.
“We have seen people go back to what they grew up on, things like roast dinners, and the number of searches on the Bord Bia site for comfort food recipes have more than doubled over the last month,” McDonnell says.
His research, meanwhile, points out that “time-poor consumers have almost overnight moved from the world of compromised convenience foods to a world of home cooking and even slow cooking”, adding that “being stuck at home means the kitchen is becoming a focal point of our day”.
Research agency Behaviour & Attitudes has also been monitoring consumer sentiment in recent days and has found that 46 per cent of Irish people have been cooking more meals, while a similar number are now eating main meals in the company of others.
We are in the midst of a revolution in cooking upskilling
“As everyone has descended on the home and as we hunker down, pleasing people through food is a priority,” the Bord Bia research says.
But whether we maintain our new cooking habits when the crisis lifts is another question. It takes roughly 66 days to change a habit, and – hopefully – we won’t have to spend that long at home.
“We may move on from comfort cooking [but] it’s likely some family favourites will remain so,” the report says. “We are in the midst of a revolution in cooking upskilling, with consumers adding new dishes to their at-home repertoire on a daily basis.”
Another trend identified has been safety. The desire to stay safe while confronting an invisible enemy saw grocery stockpiling in the early days of the crisis, but we are also seeing “more subtle manifestations of this, with consumers seeking reassurances regarding food safety”.
Sometimes that has led consumers to make sometimes irrational choices on the basis of what they think will keep the virus from their door. For instance, Google Trends data shows that our interest in cuisines from China and Italy nosedived in February and March while in the US almost 40 per cent of beer drinkers say they will not drink Corona beer under any circumstances at the moment.
By contrast, anecdotal evidence would suggest many Irish people have been buying it for the craic.
This new desire to stay safe has seen us asking questions that even six weeks ago would have been ludicrous. Do we wash our fruit and vegetables in soap and water? Do we sanitise our beans? Do we need to leave our shopping in quarantine for days before decanting it? These questions “only serve to highlight the sensitivity of consumers” right now, McDonnell says.
At the outset of the crisis, the Behavioural Research Unit at the Economic & Social Research Institute (ESRI) identified seven issues worth considering in “fighting the coronavirus”. Number seven on that list was risk perceptions.
Overstating or understating a risk can see people making choices that have a negative outcome. That’s because perceptions of risk drives behaviour, and people judge the likelihood of an outcome partly by how easily it springs to mind.
Today, in the midst of the pandemic, shoppers’ “risk assessments” are heightened, but is there actual evidence that Covid-19 will survive on a baguette or loaf of bread on display in a store? Probably not, but the “closest available evidence would suggest it’s better to be safe than sorry. Shoppers have been told to mitigate risk by washing their hands. They’ve been told not to wear face masks, then possibly that they should wear face masks. Food, on display out in the open, always something that needed careful handling, now needs even more careful handling.”
Another trend noted by Bord Bia has seen food shoppers moving online, creating an explosion of data which will lead to the refinement of AI online shopping assistants and auto-complete shopping lists, McDonnell says.
It would appear that many shoppers are trying online shopping for the first time
“Current observations would suggest that online grocery – even for global specialists such as Amazon and Ocado – is already very congested,” the report notes. “Many consumers are experiencing long lead times for home delivery. Equally, however, it would appear that many shoppers are trying online shopping for the first time. As retailers scale up capability online, we may well find the ‘automation’ of ordering groceries kicks in as a behavioural norm.”
And what does that mean?
“We know the grocery shoppers of the future will be ‘digital natives’, those who have always had access to computers and the internet, and therefore rapid change is the norm for them,” the report says.
Smart consumers will use AI to optimise everything including what they eat. “These consumers are likely to allow AI bots and smart home services to perform consistent purchases, and people will trust them to make the right decisions. Running low on milk? Your smart fridge will order it for you. Eating too much saturated fat? Your health app on your phone will block you from over-ordering on your Amazon or Tesco app.”
The big trend noted by Bord Bia has been the stocking up. Its research suggests we are not doing this in the simplistic “panic-buying” sense – there is more nuance to the picture. For example, at the beginning of the crisis consumers initially bought “shelf-stable” long-life foods to create “pandemic pantries”, but they then quickly moved to the purchasing of frozen foods.
“One could be forgiven for assuming shopping has moved into panic-buying with shopper missions driven by a need to stay ‘stocked up’ at home. But the truth behind changing consumer behaviour is a little more complex – moving from panic to preparedness. We call this evolved grocery shopper behaviour stocking-in,” the report says.
Far from becoming a burden or compromise for consumers, there is some evidence that people are looking on the positives of living from the pandemic pantry.
Brooklyn chef Chitra Agrawal has talked about always having a pantry that’s filled with dried beans and lentils for making dal. In Australia the chef Jane de Graaff was set the challenge of cooking four meals with no fresh ingredients on Australia’s Today Show. And in the UK, Jamie Oliver has launched a new show, Keep Cooking and Carry On. The idea behind this show is to encourage us to embrace a new world of cooking where cupboard staples can be turned into interesting and exciting new recipes.
The appeal of these initiatives could be explained by “decision fatigue”. Pre-pandemic shoppers enjoyed a world of “over-choice” and there is a significant body of evidence to suggest that over-choice is associated with unhappiness. Today we are seeing shoppers actually enjoy cooking with scare resources, McDonnell suggests.
“The reality is stockpiling behaviour is a complex phenomenon based around shopper reactions to scarcity, choice, control deprivation and decision fatigue. These behaviours could unlock ‘nudges’ around changing shopper missions that retailers and producers can tap into. We will be watching how shopper behaviour evolves in the coming months to truly understand if some of these stocking-in behaviours actually are here for good.”