Marcia Mogelonsky
Marcia Mogelonsky, Ph. D. is the Director of Insight, Food & Drink, at Mintel. Her expertise focuses on consumer behavior across a range of categories.

The COVID-19 journey is continuing and some consumers are trying to reset their lives as countries have entered the next normal with guardrails in place in an effort to stave off a second wave. However, other consumers are finding the lifting of shelter-in-place rules and the concurrent “wear a mask” laws confining and challenging. The spread of the virus, its intensity and its impact change daily, forcing cycles of new lockdowns and restrictions.

Hoarding and stockpiling of groceries and supplies have abated across most markets, but consumers are worried about what awaits them. Consumer behavior reflects a growing and changing mental outlook around what is to come.

Mental wellness: the next COVID frontier

Mintel’s Trend Drivers identify the core influences on consumer behavior, consciously and subconsciously. One of these drivers, ‘Wellbeing,’ focuses on the importance of physical and mental wellness, and since the start of the pandemic, the focus on both psychological and physical wellbeing has grown.

There is no doubt that the pandemic is taking a toll on consumers’ mental health. Fear, isolation, economic challenges and social unrest have all contributed to our moods as the pandemic continues to play out across the world. In some markets where COVID-19 has gone through its first cycle, a second cycle has started, shutting down activities once more and slowing recovery. In other markets, businesses are opening slowly and consumers are edging back into routines.

For some consumers, there is still fear: they are approaching their re-entry carefully, expressing enthusiasm for some activities and dragging their heels at rejoining others. For others, new-found freedoms are met with exuberance, but their actions have become the nexus of new virus fears. These behaviors reflect a number of responses to the virus and suggest ways that marketers should approach them.

PCSD: Post-COVID Stress Disorder

Given its rapid spread and its dramatic impact on the day-to-day lives of consumers, the pandemic has been compared with other traumatic events, both personal and global. As consumers start to emerge from the first wave of the pandemic, some of them are beginning to manifest the symptoms of what could be described as Post-COVID stress disorder, parallel to the condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Under normal circumstances, the brain switches the body from “survival mode” to a state of restoration after a threat has passed. But for those who suffer from PTSD, that switch never occurs, leaving the survivor in a constant state of emergency and fear. A similar behavior is emerging as the pandemic plays out.

After months of being sequestered, consumers are looking forward to socializing face-to-face with friends and family as lockdowns ease. But even such joyous occasions can be fraught with stress and PCSD consumers will continue to be worried about exposure to the virus and take hygiene into account when visiting others’ homes. Indeed, PCSD is even stopping some consumers from reentering society at all; they are avoiding family events, outdoor activities, and a return to shopping.

Entering cautiously

For some consumers, outdoor rendezvous are likely to be the first step in a long return to socializing, especially as the northern hemisphere basks in warmer temperatures. These anxious consumers are likely to continue to wear masks and keep their distance from friends and family when getting together, staying away from gatherings indoors.

Companies can help assuage the fears of PCSD consumers by providing sanitary and hygienic props to make get-togethers easier: everything from ready-to-serve, individually wrapped snacks to boxed meals with hygiene supplies included (eg wipes, pre-packaged cutlery) and hands-free dispensers for beverages. Retailers can also make hands-free payments easy and efficient, encouraging consumers to orchestrate get-togethers in a safe manner.

PCSD and the fear of crowds

Many consumers will be reluctant to start eating out, traveling, and going to public spaces after weeks or months of self-sequestering. This is the time for retailers, hospitality and foodservice leaders to make these activities attractive again.

There is room for enticements; financial incentives can serve a dual purpose by acknowledging consumers’ nervousness about group encounters while providing affordable entertainment as people learn to deal with their new financial reality. Given the economy, there is no denying that consumers’ personal financial situation is top of mind.

In order to convince PCSD consumers to make use of their services, industries should continue to display the concern they have for consumers since the pandemic began, with social media-generated reminders of improved or extended health safeguards.

What about the holidays?

This is the time for food and drink manufacturers to entice consumers emerging from lockdown by easing them back into the concept of entertaining for the autumn and winter holiday season.

Given the unpredictable course of the pandemic – and consumers’ reaction to it – manufacturers and retailers are likely to be looking to two different scenarios when planning for these big family holidays: how products should be marketed for a “holiday in isolation” and how they should be positioned for “the first gathering since the virus.”

Manufacturers and retailers should also prepare for a hybrid scenario: consumers are likely to embrace the winter holidays with enthusiastic, but exclusive family celebrations in person, balanced by a more restrictive approach to parties for friends and acquaintances. While celebrating in restaurants may appeal to small groups, alternative solutions are needed for larger groups.

Residual anxiety in a post-COVID world

The pandemic will leave indelible marks on consumers. But we are also resilient, and in our current era when social media keeps a constant parade of bad news, we will be eager for all the good news that manufacturers and retailers can bring. Launching new products on social media will replace sampling parties, but there will still be a big audience for innovation. While isolated, we are using the internet to share even more, with increased sharing platforms as launch pads for new ideas.

Manufacturers and retailers have successfully used the internet for crowdsourcing and focus groups in the past; these opportunities are likely to engage even more people now. Resulting innovation will likely have strong support among those who participated in their development, as consumers will take pride in contributing to a product or service that made a difference, even during the crisis.

Living the next normal…and waiting for the one after that

The world will come through the COVID-19 epidemic, and consumers will still consume. They will be skittish at first, and they will be looking for support and understanding. They will also be in the midst of a global recession. But, just as we were able to shed the memories of the last recession and challenging milestones before that, we will, in time, find a safe footing as we face the next normal, and the one after that.

At this point, it is hard to foresee what each step will look like, but it is likely that consumers will continue to be partially cynical, cautious, and risk-averse, at least until we get back on an even keel. From the consumer perspective, transparency leads to trust, and corporations that maintain open and clear channels of communication with consumers as we all move through our levels of COVID anxiety disorder will maintain a secure presence moving forward.