Three Types of Change to Consider Post-Pandemic

Our projection is that most of the behavioral change we observed during the pandemic will be consciously tossed aside as people express their resentment that such a situation kept them constrained.

Originally printed in the February 2021 issue of Produce Business.

There is no question that if you study consumer shopping behavior in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, you find many behavioral chances from pre-pandemic behavior. There also is little question that these changes can be divided up into three separate categories:

First, there were changes that “leaped us ahead.” These are changes that would have happened anyway, but the pandemic led to their much more rapid adoption and the fast rollout of needed infrastructure. This is probably true of the various delivery services. Even here, however, there is likely to be a fallback post-pandemic toward the pre-pandemic norm. In other words, people who have experienced these delivery services, and liked them, are likely to continue to use them. However, even that is not so simple. Most obviously, with people back at work, on business trips or vacations, or if there are social activities with family and friends, if nobody is going to be home, it might just be easier to stop at a store and pick up what you want.

Second, there are the “highly-unlikely-to-persevere” changes. Yes, during the pandemic, many consumers went to stores or ordered online, and when their preferred product was unavailable, they accepted substitutes. This is nothing new. We hear from our elders many stories about not being able to get things during the rationing of World War II, whether preferred foods or women’s nylons. Many families established Victory Gardens both to express patriotism and to make their own lives better by growing items that were often unavailable in stores. Yet, when the war was over, the gardening effort went down fast. We have no reason to believe that post-pandemic consumers will continue to accept that they are unable to get the goods they wanted. Items… brands… value-added… the absence of any of these things is likely to make consumers do what they did pre-pandemic: Go shop elsewhere.

Third, we have changes that have occurred which may or may not survive post-pandemic. Many foodservice distributors, for example, got into the “box” business often with interesting products, conveniently delivered. Will this direct-to-consumer channel survive post-pandemic? It is difficult to know. Certain products, notably citrus, have thrived during the pandemic, presumably because consumers approach these products, rich in vitamin C, as an ideal product when health is an issue. Will that habit survive when health is no longer such an obvious dilemma?

Big screen TVs have experienced a sales boom during the pandemic as have the snacks that consumers make for themselves when watching their favorite shows. On the other hand, food that normally would be sold in movie theatres was barely sold at all. Will people go back to movie theaters? The existence of better-at-home experiences and the explosion of streaming services, such as Disney+ and Netflix, indicate that movie theatres may not bounce back, but young people like to date away their parent’s gaze, and there is a certain communal experience in seeing things on the big screen, with everyone breaking into applause and cheers when the villain is defeated. It is hard to say what will happen here.

Our projection is that most of the behavioral change we observed during the pandemic will be consciously tossed aside as people express their resentment that such a situation kept them constrained. Just as the Roaring Twenties followed the horrors of World War I and the great influenza pandemic, the “Spanish Flu” of 1918, so a new age of reckless release is likely to follow the mass vaccination program that protects almost everyone from COVID.

The idea that consumers will not all think alike — that what Deloitte is calling the “Conventional” vs the “Contemporary” consumer will see different paths ahead — is almost certainly true. Yet, it is always true that consumers differ in their willingness to adapt, willingness to change, willingness to try new paths. It is also true that the rate of change accepted by different people is also always an issue.

Though the exact moment of takeoff may be uncertain, it is in the American spirit to despise the coils of this pandemic and burst through them. We doubt all the lessons deemed “learned” in this pandemic have actually been learned at all.

Which, of course, ends with a somber note. The 1920’s was a wild time — Gross Domestic Product zoomed up over 40%, flappers were dancing, the Jazz Age and Harlem Renaissance redefined the culture, Prohibition was flouted and ultimately repealed. Yet in 1929, it all came crashing down, and a decade of Depression and another horrible war came to haunt us. Let us hope that we can avoid a similar fate.