18 Sep 2020 20:10 IST

Decoding changing consumer behaviour during and post-Covid

The key is to gratify the needs of a shopping-starved consumer who also wishes to spend responsibly

When we are not on Zoom meetings, our mind wanders into thinking about what life will be like when the prevailing pandemic ends. We will definitely witness notable changes in how we greet others, how we work, how we play, and undoubtedly, how we consume. The pandemic will transform our world for years after the virus disappears, prompting consumers to reassess their purchasing patterns. Marketers will need to acknowledge the new normal.

None can foresee what the future will hold; yet, we can make some predictions. After all, for many of us, this is the most consequential adversity we have ever experienced. And we know that the best indicator of future behaviour is our past behaviour during crises. We know, for example, cities that practiced physical distancing during the 1918 Spanish flu came out with lower mortality rates than those that didn’t.

It seems almost prudent to predict that consumers will shift to value-priced brands for years. You don’t need a crystal ball to anticipate that there will be a lot of public wrangling about brand values, prices, and consumer preferences for some time to come. Here, we are going to look at the underlying human impulses that are likely to affect choices and behaviours in the new normal. We know that inherent values change over time in every society, and these in turn determine the products and services we seek — even though at times this is like directing a warship.

Here are two fundamental dimensions to consider as businesses begin to rebuild.

Increased gratification

When we are liberated from our quarantine enclosures, we will experience what repressed demand feels like. Temporary insanity will fuel the fire as millions of jaded souls crave to have fun again. But what will this look like to those who are rattled financially long after they get the all-clear? It’s difficult to engage in a rampage of consumption when you have lost a big part of your income. I read some recent predictions of market analysts, and it’s been exciting to see that some think people will prefer careful spending, while others will over splurge to compensate for the huge cutback in shopping during the lockdown.

Now, who is correct? I believe both are. During the last decade’s slowdown, we saw increased sales of guilty pleasures, such as premium ice creams. The key here is to render affordable luxuries that will allow people to treat themselves, without having to burn a hole in your wallet. For example, luxury marketers may not sell as many high-end stuff, but their customers will look for dainty purchases that satisfy their desires to keep acquiring designer names. If they can’t afford a bottle of Bvlgari Man Glacial Essence Eau De Parfum for ₹7,400, then they will try that shower gel of Bvlgari Man for ₹1,800 instead.

Need for stability

In tempestuous times, we covet certainty. The need to reclaim a guise of security is likely to translate to a preference for lower-risk brand options to consumers. Brand testing takes a back seat to tried and trusted solutions. Loyalty to well-established brands will make a comeback so long as these products sustain the line on nominal pricing. Comfort foods rule the roost; already makers of Chawanprash, Maggi noodles, and Parle-G have reported elevated sales. Fast fashion’s focus on inexpensive clothing items that we dump after a few uses will give way to ‘investment dressing’ options that force us to prioritise quality over quantity.

Brands are more likely to prosper when they contribute to our social welfare. A recent study stated that a majority of consumers believe that brands are more powerful than governments when it comes to addressing societal concerns. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was already a crucial component to many consumers especially the younger ones. But now in extension to the concerns about environmental practices, people will be more watchful about how a company handles its workers — particularly those on the front-lines as they deal with people directly. Consumers have a very hypersensitive BS detector, and the unfounded swagger will come back to bite you if you don’t walk the talk.

When we explore consumer spending during a pandemic in light of the fundamental consumer drives, perhaps we can adjust to the new normal by converging our focuses on increased gratification and unrivalled need for stability.