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When shoppers return, will they choose green?

Coronavirus shopper
AS photo studio

Consumers are spooked.

Record unemployment, continued levels of lockdown in many places and general uncertainty have most of us startled and longing for certainty. No wonder that we’ve seen plunges in consumer spending and confidence around the world.

Once consumption resumes, will people make choices to support a more sustainable economy?

In conversations among fellow sustainability leaders, I often hear optimism that shoppers will make decisions based on how companies behaved during the coronavirus pandemic. There is hope that shoppers will remember which companies treated their employees well and stepped up to provide technical or financial support during the pandemic.

Information on how corporations respond is available. For example, Just Capital tracks how America’s largest employers are treating stakeholders amid the pandemic. But will consumers apply this information to post-pandemic shopping decisions?

Cautious optimism

Currently, there’s not much evidence that people will reward companies that have been good citizens and employers and turn away from those who have not. However, we have some early indications of attitudes. A poll by Porter Novelli/Cone conducted in April of 1,004 U.S. adults found:

  • 73 percent said when they learn of companies’ COVID-19 specific responses they are more likely to purchase from those companies, trust them and be loyal to them.
  • 75 percent of American respondents said that they will remember which companies stepped up to provide coronavirus support when this is all over.
  • 73 percent said they will remember companies that made bad decisions during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • 75 percent feel how companies act now will impact their perceptions in the future.
  • 71 percent say if they learned of a company’s irresponsible or deceptive business practices during the coronavirus pandemic, they would stop buying its products/services.

In another bit of good news, Futerra took a pulse-measure poll of 204 people in the United Kingdom and United States. It asked: Should we respond to climate change with the same urgency as we have responded to the coronavirus? Futerra’s findings: 69 percent of U.K. respondents said yes, as did almost 58 percent of U.S. respondents.

75 percent of American respondents said that they will remember which companies stepped up to provide coronavirus support when this is all over.

Google reported that searches for "How to live a sustainable lifestyle" increased by more than 4,550 percent over the past three months.

These results are heartening. They signal an openness and intention to shop, work and live in a way that’s aligned with what one values.

Let’s consider the landscape

We can’t forget the broader context. What shopping patterns will be after the coronavirus pandemic remains highly uncertain. It’s hard to predict how attitudes, particularly for millennials and Gen Z, will affect behaviors. We’ve changed our at-home habits, as home is now where we live, work, go to school, exercise, socialize, cook and eat. We know from our personal experiences that shopping patterns have radically changed.

Recent surveys reveal granular data about the changes. Chain Store Age found in the U.S. in March:

  • 80 percent of millennials reported an impact from the coronavirus on purchase decisions.
  • 73 percent of baby boomers reported an impact.
  • However, less than half of all respondents (47 percent) said they were cutting back on spending overall.

As unemployment continues to increase, I wonder if more than half of all people will cut back on spending? Unemployment, pay reductions, job insecurity and general concerns about the economy will drive less spending and, where possible, higher savings. We’re seeing this in China, the United States and Europe.

Shopping habits will change. We expect consumer patterns that prioritize the self and health. We also see some consumer trends have stalled, such as privacy concerns, the circular economy and single-use plastics. For example, privacy concerns have receded because people are prepared to pause their privacy concerns to share data for public health.

Meanwhile, single-use packaging is sought-after. Reuse, sharing, renting and refilling to avoid waste have been superseded by health concerns. Euromonitor International thinks the earlier trend will return, but slowly. Companies need to educate their customers about the safety of reusables and sharing, and clearly instruct them on how to clean them.

Luxury items initially came under strong pressure but are expected to have some bounce for those whose income was not touched. However, millennials with less disposable income and more awareness of "real needs" may become more conscious of what they buy.

The notion of "luxury" is changing, too. Health and well-being for oneself are top priorities in China. For more traditional luxury fashion brands, items that are expected to become more investment pieces that will serve them for years — or at least hold their resale value — are expected to be more sought after than flashy trends. Globally, the secondhand market will continue to grow as long as sanitization procedures are clearly communicated.

Will shoppers drive forward a sustainable economy?

It’s too soon to say. I am concerned by lower levels of income across broad reaches of society. Security concerns, including personal financial and health, will be with us for a long while. These concerns may dwarf broader concerns.

There will be some early "wins" for certain aspects of sustainability. Two examples are buying "local" and supporting companies that are considered to have treated their employees and local economies well during the coronavirus pandemic. Finally, as global supply chains recalibrate, "made locally" may be given more weight.

Other aspects of sustainability will grow harder to implement. For example, single-use packaging will continue to increase in use. States have lifted bans on single-use plastic bags. At the right moment, reusability can make a comeback and build on the earlier traction, which will require reinforced safety messages.

Pandemic consumer trends

What consumer behavior trends do you see forming for lockdown and post-pandemic spending? Please share your thoughts below in the comments section or drop me a note at [email protected].

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