Update: Behaviour changed - Coles CMO Lisa Ronson says shopping habits won't be back to normal anytime soon
Coles CMO Lisa Ronson says both shoppers and retailers had started to emerge from lockdown behaviour in the last few weeks. Though buying habits were by no means back to normal, product restrictions had lifted and people were back in stores, using up their pantry stocks. Then Victoria's flare-up saw Australians once again stampede for toilet paper and the safety of the dunny. Ronson thinks the behaviour changes brought about by Covid-19 will last for quite some time yet - and not just for retail.
Before the spike in Covid-19 cases in Victoria last week, shoppers were starting to ease back on stockpiling everyday items, says Ronson. But they weren’t exactly back in the pre-Covid groove; buying patterns suggests consumer behaviour has changed, potentially for the foreseeable future.
“We’re not necessarily seeing people snap back. There is still a lot of hesitation … some of the Covid behaviours are continuing,” says Ronson. “People are still working from home, so we’re in general eating breakfast later, dinner earlier and we’re snacking quite a bit in the afternoons.”
Ronson's interview, as part of the AANA's Reset Now series with Nine and Mi3, was recorded just before Victoria saw COVID cases spike again and a national surge in panic buying returned.
In an updated conversation with Ronson yesterday, she says Coles moved quickly to cap product purchases in essential categories like toilet paper, pasta, rice and cleaning products after the retailer noticed bigger shopping baskets and fast-rising demand in some product categories.
"We started to notice it last week - it started in Victoria and moved quite rapidly through other states," says Ronson. "We were a lot better prepared in seeing the signs of bigger shopping trolleys, toilet paper demand and so-on, so we were quick to introduce restrictions."
Ronson says Coles learnt from the March buying surge that public angst and panic purchasing is best managed when shoppers see supermarkets remain open and product shelves are not empty.
"Ultimately it's that complex human behaviour of not wanting to miss out," she says.
Beyond last week's buying surge, Ronson says Australia is consuming less raw food in the past four weeks of COVID. Meat and salads are being replaced with cooked vegetables and pulses. “Barley, brussels sprouts, onions, beans, turnips, parsnips, those sorts of things, which people are using to slow cook.” Compared to a year earlier (week 24 2019, versus week 24 2020), “about 200,000 more of us are slow cooking each night,” says Ronson.
“So, some of those home cooking behaviours are still continuing, and based on what we're seeing consumers still buying, will continue for a little while.”
“There’s a lot of variables at play so it’s really hard to predict, but my hypothesis as a marketers is definitely that behaviours will change. They will be changed for an extended period of time.”
Supermarkets were compelled to once again cap sales of toilet roll again last week as Australia scrambled for the nation’s double-ply comfort blanket.
Before then, for several weeks before the second spike, Ronson said things had largely settled down.
“The amount of toilet paper we sold in a very short period of time was pretty much what the nation needed for almost a year,” she says. “So there is still a fair bit of toilet paper, but what remains to be seen is how much consumers will hold in their pantries. But we [were] seeing people buying things like toilet paper and some of the panic buying items again, so we [were] seeing some de-stocking.”
But Coles thinks people have had a shock, and will want more of a buffer going forward – meaning pantries are likely to be better stocked than pre-Covid times.
“We’re seeing people shopping less times per week with bigger baskets. Most Australians are keeping a little more of some of those everyday essentials because of the fear that it may happen again. So some behaviours may change, and I think they’ll be enduring, at least for the next year or so,” says Ronson.
The level of long-term behaviour change across society will depend on the severity of the economic damage. While that remains to be seen, Ronson points out that people have become used to staying in for extended periods of time, and that going out “once or twice a week will be a lot more of a treat” than pre-Covid society.
“There’s a lot of variables at play so it’s really hard to predict, but my hypothesis as a marketers is definitely that behaviours will change,” says Ronson. “They will be changed for an extended period of time.”
Localism: Demand and supply
Some behavioural trends that were present pre-Covid have since accelerated. Localism, whether a desire to ‘buy Australian’, or more specifically local at community level, appears more pronounced.
Ronson says buying Australian was already “a really critical component” of the weekly shop. “100% of all of our meat and about 96% of all of our fresh, which largely determines where you're going to go and shop, is Australian. So, it's always been important to us,” she says. “But I think that will continue to grow in importance to support the local providers, the local bakers and things like that.”
Coles ‘Local’ strategy was in place long before Covid, with its first Local store opening in Melbourne in 2018 (though some five years after Woolworths took a similar approach, starting in Erskinville, Sydney).
Coles has since launched its first Local store in Sydney at Rose Bay, stocking produce from local suppliers. Ronson says even its large format stores are starting to take a similar approach to the items stocked, “depending on what the local residents want in that catchment”.
For example the Rose Bay store “has the local baker, the local butcher from Bondi; we’re supporting a lot of local businesses because that’s becoming increasingly important”.
The Local store format also enables Coles to better cater to more metropolitan tastes.
“Coles Local has one of our largest ranges of meat free products, vegan products,” says Ronson. “What we’re trying to do is incorporate a lot of the societal shifts, not only as a result of Covid or anything that's happened in recent history, but some of the food trends that were happening anyway around the flight to veganism or flexitarianism or vegetarianism.”
“I think a lot of brands have come out just … inserting themselves into the [Covid] conversation when they don't really have a place in it. It kind of felt like, ’Well, I need to say something.’”
Sometimes it’s best to say nothing
There’s been much said about the homogeneity of brand communications during Covid, with marketers such as Kia’s Dean Norbiato and new Arnott’s CMO Jenni Dill critical of “a lot of empty platitudes”.
Asked for her thoughts, Ronson says she “totally agrees” with that assessment.
“The key through all of this was to be timely, to be relevant and to insert itself in the conversation as you were required. I think a lot of brands have come out just … inserting themselves into the conversation when they don't really have a place in it. It kind of felt like, ’Well, I need to say something,’ says Ronson.
Marketers, should know better, she suggests, and should “never try to overplay their role in customers lives”. But Ronson adds that it’s unfair to be too harsh on marketers trying to do the right thing, given nobody has been through anything like this before.
“I don’t think there was ever any ill intention from any marketer. The intentions were right, just the execution probably didn’t land very well.”
Social media collapse stories ‘wide of the mark’
Data released last month by social media monitoring company Shareablee suggested Coles was among a number of major brands that saw engagement tank during lockdown.
The platform’s data suggested Coles’ social media engagement across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter had collapsed 65 per cent in April.
Ronson says that is wide of the mark.
“I don't think it's as dramatic as that, and I'd have to look underneath their methodology because I certainly wasn't seeing that much of a decrease,” she says.
Ronson accepts there was “some change” in how people communicated with Coles on social media, with “an increase in views, but maybe a slight decrease in click-throughs”. But across all channels, she says the retailer “saw an increase engagement through the course of March, April and May. So, those [Shareablee] numbers are quite inconsistent with what we're seeing more broadly,” says Ronson.
“We're seeing our customers want to communicate with us more rather than less, whether that to be asking questions or to give us a point of view.”
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