Study Finds COVID-19 Permanently Changing Consumer Behaviours in Canada

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The COVID-19 pandemic is changing consumer behaviour and habits being formed today could easily stick for a long period of time.

A recent survey by Accenture, a leading global professional services company, providing a broad range of services in strategy and consulting, interactive, technology and operations, with digital capabilities across all of these services, found that 83 percent of Canadian consumers are limiting the number of times they shop, which has been the biggest change in shopping behaviour.

Kelly Askew, Managing Director, Accenture Strategy in Canada, said the report is indicating that consumer behaviour is changing in Canada in a number of different ways.

“People are saying they expect that those new behaviours are going to continue into the foreseeable future. We think that those behaviours may persist as long as a decade,” said Askew. “The crisis is causing consumers to consider the impact of their shopping choices more closely when it comes to things like health and the environment.

Social distance conceptual small business waiter serving customer in cafe

“The population at large has been highly trained and encouraged to follow social distancing norms. Additionally we’re seeing that people are starting to work from home. A large number of people who haven’t worked from home in the past are saying they will continue to do so after the restrictions are lifted when they never would have considered it before. Further, as the layout and configuration of stores has changed with one-way aisles, plexiglass shields between the customers and the cashiers, I’ve heard many people say that shopping isn’t as pleasant an experience as before.

“Now people are becoming far more purpose-driven in their trips and are getting used to getting in and getting out of the stores as quickly as possible. Some people have made it analogous to what happened to air travel after 9-11. That was quite a while ago and many of the behaviours that existed both driven by the consumer and driven by the providers remain.”

The Accenture survey also found in Canada:

  • 92 percent of consumers are worried about the impact of COVID-19 on the health system;

  • 90 percent are worried about the impact on the economy; and

  • Only 40 percent of consumers feel more connected to family, friends, neighbours, and the community on average – with the global average sitting at 54 percent.

Globally the survey found:

  • 50 percent of consumers are shopping more health consciously;

  • 45 percent said they are making more sustainable choices when shopping; and

  • 67 percent said they are focusing more on limiting food waste.

Askew said the limiting of the number of times Canadian consumers shop is the biggest behavioral change that has been noticed.

“People are going less frequently to the grocery store while the pandemic is on. They’re getting used to stocking up and shopping for a longer period of time than they would have in the past,” he said.

“Clearly as we’ve looked across the categories I think it’s well-recognized that certain categories have done well in terms of where people are spending their money. Groceries, alcohol, health, and cleaning parts are all doing well. Apparel sales have dropped dramatically. So people aren’t buying clothes. I have some clients that operate outside of Canada and in Europe and what they’re seeing as they’re starting to re-open their stores is an immediate pent-up demand for things like apparel.

“But the question remains, will people just start to think very carefully about how they make purchases? As you look at industries like fashion, the point of view is that they were already past a tipping point in terms of sustainability. So the notion of disposable clothing and buying a different outfit for every occasion has certainly gone out of people’s minds.”

He said that consumers are learning, when the shops are closed, that they don’t in fact need to do the same volume of consumption. They don’t need to spend as much money on things that they may have been doing habitually in the past. People are starting to question those a little bit more.

Globally, the survey found that the pandemic is causing more people to shop for groceries online. In fact, one in five respondents who said their most-recent grocery purchase was done online were first-time online grocery shoppers — for older consumers, this was one in three. And while 32 percent of consumers’ current purchases of all products and services have been online, that figure is expected to rise to 37 percent going forward.

“People who may not have considered grocery shopping a desirable or viable option in the past are discovering that it works. We’re also seeing people telling us about a third of their historical purchases and services have been online. They’re expecting it’s going to rise to about 40 percent,” explained Askew. “That’s a pretty significant increase in such a short period of time.”

He said retailers need to be ready for a very rocky road ahead with talks of additional waves of COVID coming through as well as the ever-present threats of societal or geo-political disruptions.

“The conversations I’m having with my clients are around the need for agility, variability, and sustainability,” said Askew. “By that, agility means they need to get a little bit smaller so that they’re able to nimbly react and pivot when situations change. Variability means they need to be minimizing their fixed cost base. Big assets, large workforces that were static when stores were closed down became quite a liability. In fact, we’ve seen a number of retailers enter bankruptcy protection because they had such an overwhelming fixed cost base they could not cover when sales dropped to something approaching zero for many of them.

“We talk more about sustainability of a business model which is around discipline and making sure that in good times and in bad they have the same kind of discipline around having the most efficient operations as possible.”

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