Beyond theater: The demand for cleanliness post-COVID-19

April 12, 2021
6 min read

Consumers will continue to expect some of the visible signs of hygiene implemented during the pandemic. However, as more consumers are vaccinated, they are likely to reject some of the measures implemented to maintain social distancing. Outlets will be monitoring the tolerance level of consumers while keeping governmental regulations in place.

Beyond the visible, long-term enhancements to store infrastructure include improved HVAC systems, enhanced filtration systems and UV lighting systems. Visible proof of “hidden” hygiene practices includes certification programs for cleanliness and sanitation as well as publicity about such improvements.

Overall, consumers will expect more overt demonstrations of hygiene from retailers as they change their own personal cleanliness habits.

Consumers’ attitudes towards hygiene changed during the pandemic

A major outcome of the pandemic has been the relationship between consumers and hygiene, which can be viewed on a number of levels:

  • Personal hygiene
  • Home hygiene
  • “Environment” hygiene

Consumers were encouraged to wash their hands more frequently as the pandemic spread; in many markets, personal cleanliness products (hand soaps, sanitizers, and the like) saw sales rise as consumers stockpiled supplies. Also in demand: face masks, which became required in some markets and under certain circumstances.

Home cleaning products, especially those that promised disinfecting and sanitizing, also became popular as more consumers made more of an effort to clean their homes. In Canada, for example, more than two-thirds of consumers responsible for house cleaning said that they were cleaning more often as a result of the pandemic.

The concept of “environment hygiene” takes on a range of manifestations. Consumers looked to protect themselves in the environment beyond their homes by distancing themselves from others, avoiding some activities such as sports, travel, and entertainment, and by changing their expectations in the environments they did frequent such as supermarkets and drugstores.

Personal hygiene habits changed

Consumers have changed their personal hygiene habits since the onset of the pandemic, encouraged by governments and by common sense. Handwashing frequency has increased, as has the use of hand sanitizers, according to Mintel research on soap, bath and shower products. In India, for example, since the pandemic, more than three-quarters of consumers are sanitizing their hands more frequently, and two-thirds are washing their hands with liquid hand soap more frequently. Similarly, the incidence of hand sanitizers in Thailand has increased since the pandemic.

Other personal hygiene habits, such as mask-wearing, have also become more of an issue as the pandemic continues. In the US, for example, in January 2021 – almost one year after the virus gained pandemic status – three-quarters of consumers say that they are wearing a face mask in public because of COVID-19.

Consumer fears prompt supermarkets to step up visible cleanliness

In early 2020, as the pandemic took hold across the globe, consumers rethought their food shopping habits. While many types of retail outlets closed during lockdowns, food stores stayed open – but they were forced to adapt.

For example, supermarkets instituted directional arrows in aisles to prevent crowding; enacted mask-wearing requirements for customers and staff; limited access to a handful of shoppers at a time; and reshaped or closed departments in which unwrapped and self-serve food was on offer (eg in-store bakeries, delis, salad bars).

They also displayed visible signs of hygiene, from frequent cart, basket and checkout lane disinfecting to plexiglass or plastic barriers between checkout clerk and customers.

Security theater is the model for visible signs of hygiene

At the end of the 20th century and into the 2000s, accelerated by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, countries added visible signs of security to their public spaces: bollards in front of entryways to airports and train stations, enhanced police and military presence in and around public buildings, and more.

Security experts dubbed these enhancements “theater,” skeptically saying what they provided was a feeling of security, without actually achieving that goal. However, what the “theater” did provide was a way of giving consumers the feeling that they were being protected. That, in itself, is an important goal, as it allowed consumers to get back to their regular activities once more.

From security theater to hygiene theater

The principle behind security theater – providing consumers with a feeling of safety in a challenging environment – has been transferred to another area: hygiene.

On top of visible signs and symbols of security, we are now witnessing reminders that environments are hygienic and clean. The aim is to entice consumers back to all their usual routines, from travel to exercise and beyond.

The airline industry has gone to great lengths to provide visible signs that their planes are clean, hygienic and safe. Delta Airlines, for example, has instituted a Cleanliness Ambassador program to “oversee rigorous quality-assurance inspections, champion high standards throughout facilities and aircraft.”

Yet, it is not just the airlines: hotels, too, are adding hygiene programs and making it clear that consumers are aware of them. IHG, for example, promotes its Clean Promise program online.

Will enhanced and visible hygiene bring shoppers back to stores?

Returning to in-person shopping depends on consumers’ vaccination status, their level of apprehension about the virus in general and their desire to experience shopping the way it “used to be.”

As the pandemic enters its second year in many markets, the urge to shop in person is gaining in intensity. In the US, for example, in January 2021, nearly two-thirds of adults say they feel comfortable shopping in-store; in Canada, the same percentage of consumers agree.

At the same time, there remains a desire to limit that experience. In the US, for example, more than half of consumers are limiting the amount of time they spend in stores, as are three-fifths of Canadians, nearly two in five UK consumers and nearly half of Spanish consumers.

What we think

As the pandemic eases, it is still incumbent upon supermarkets and other retail outlets to maintain visible signs of hygiene as a way of assuring consumers’ safety. They should go a step further by implementing long-term enhancements to store infrastructure and “shared food” departments (deli, bakery). One other opportunity: keep consumers informed of long-term health and hygiene modifications to offer the assurance that retailers continue to monitor and respond to pandemic-driven changes in the environment.

Marcia Mogelonsky
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.

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