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Behavioral Science

Consumer Psychology and COVID-19: Turning New Consumer Habits into Opportunities

Posted On  March 26, 2020

The global COVID-19 pandemic seems to have altered almost every aspect of our lives— the way we socialize, the way we educate, and the way we exercise, just to name a few. But one of the most pervasive disruptions has been the impact on our shopping and purchasing habits. Scarcity, social distancing and ever-changing demands have altered the way we shop for food, household products, and just about everything else. For many brands who, just like consumers, are reassessing daily how best to weather the storm, the big question is whether these changes represent a temporary detour or permanent restructuring of the way we shop.

As behavioral scientists, our curiosity about human behavior can’t be contained by social distancing, so we’re looking closer at the psychological impacts of COVID-19 on consumer habits.

New Consumer Habits in the Age of COVID-19

In “normal” times, brands often reach out to potential consumers when they are undergoing a life change, such as moving homes or welcoming a new child. This is because major life transitions impact our daily routines, and brands compete for access to those shifts in consumers’ attention. Right now, changes to employment status/location, to grocery selections, and to our ability to move freely have disrupted many of our daily habits, both inside and outside of the home.

Many of our daily habits are helpful. They are simply your brain’s way of automating things you frequently do to free up mental space for more effortful thinking. When habits are disrupted, not only do consumers have to rely more on time-consuming conscious thought, but they become open to considering possibilities and ideas they hadn’t considered in some time. For both brands and consumers, this means that disrupted habits present major opportunities to change existing behaviors by replacing or augmenting existing habits.

The social distancing measures enacted to control the spread of coronavirus mean that consumers are encouraged to take fewer trips to the store, resulting in widespread shortages as well as an uptick in online shopping, both of which lead to changes in habit. A scarcity of basic shopping items – such as soap, paper goods, and perishables – means that when you find something in stock, even if it’s not your typical choice, you’re likely to buy it rather than visit another store to find your original choice.

This is a prime opportunity for alternative products, such as non-dairy milks, to steal share. Consumers who were previously uninterested may be reaching for non-dairy milks for their increased shelf life, presenting an opportunity for brands in this space to reach, and potentially retain, new customers.

Grocery delivery is another option that many are familiar with but may not have tried. In efforts to reduce trips outside, Amazon, Instacart, and other retailers have experienced extremely high demand and widespread shortages due to increased usage. The challenge now for these delivery brands is to convert these short-term customers into long-term customers. The automated nature of online grocery shopping, as well as the ability to reuse shopping lists for future orders are just a couple of features that could give new consumers enough of a positive experience to make grocery delivery a long-term solution to reduce shopping stress.

But habits don’t change after a single experience, and the negative experiences brought on by the changed behavior may outweigh the positives. When switching from in-store to online shopping, for example, consumers can’t rely on typical in-store shopping reminders (“oh look, there’s the deli, that reminds me I should grab some Boar’s Head”), and they’ll have to make much more thoughtful choices upfront.

New Reinforcers in the Age of COVID-19

Reinforcers are the feedback mechanisms that tell us whether we should do the same thing over again or try a new approach. Behaviors that help us complete tasks faster, or in ways that are more satisfying, or reduce the amount of stress we experience are going to be remembered, and after plenty of repetition, they become habits. These reinforcers have likely shifted during coronavirus and social distancing, which in turn will impact the strength of existing habits and the potential to develop new habits.

To identify what reinforcers may have shifted during the pandemic, we look at what consumer needs have become more difficult to satisfy. The need to feel safe and secure is stronger than ever, as well as the need to feel connected and entertained. Brands that are able to deliver on these needs have a significant opportunity to help consumers form strong, highly rewarding habits, and identify opportunities to maintain those habits once normal life returns.

Social distancing provides a unique opportunity for video conferencing platforms to expand their market and brand positioning by not only keeping consumers connected, but entertained. While many employees working from home get utilitarian benefits from their video conferencing software, many consumers are also using these platforms to stay socially connected with friends and family. By alleviating feelings of loneliness and providing a window into the outside world, video conferencing platforms can lean into emotional reinforcers like happiness and connection to build new, enduring social habits.

Will Our New Consumer Habits Stick?

The big question for brands right now is not only how will behavior change during this time of disruption, but which of these new behaviors – if any – will remain once we go back to normal? To answer this question, we need to consider a few factors.

  • Did the habit exist before the Coronavirus outbreak?

When old habits return after a break or a change, we call this “reinstatement.” Because habits are patterns of behaviors that are deeply ingrained in our minds (they are even controlled by different parts of our brains than explicit behaviors!), they don’t necessarily go away when you don’t use them; they just lie dormant. When consumers return to their pre-quarantine behaviors, many habits may emerge just as powerfully as before, such as stopping for a latte on the way to work. But those original habits may also be replaced or augmented during self-quarantines by behaviors that are more reinforcing, such as the pride gained by perfecting your at-home latte techniques. If the new habit continues to provide those benefits, the new behaviors will continue as well.

  • How frequent and rigid is the new behavior compared to the old behavior?

Or, to put it more succinctly: how strong and disciplined was your original habit? If your morning coffee habit was very rigid (a grande double shot latte 5 times a week) it’s much more likely to be reinstated than a weaker habit (sometimes a latte, sometimes cold brew, and only a few times a week). Similarly, if your replacement behavior is more rigid than your original behavior, you have more chance of maintaining the replacement.

  • How much does the habit depend on context?

No matter how robust of a habit you create during the pandemic, the difference in context between home and your normal routine may be unable to support your new habit. If you develop a strong habit of having a home-cooked lunch, but your job typically has you on the road during lunchtime, no matter how strong your habit is, you will be unable to make the same types of lunches on the road. In these cases, you may be able to augment the current habit (say by meal prepping on the weekend) to support and extend the new behavior.

If your brand is impacted either positively or negatively by a shift in consumer behavior due to the COVID-19 outbreak, you should look to habits to understand why and how these shifts will impact future sales. By understanding the strength of habits being formed during the outbreak, as well as profiling the triggers and reinforcers that surround the habit, you can inform strategy and work to influence the ways that consumers interact with your brand both during and after the pandemic.

To learn more about making habit research part of your consumer insights program, download our ebook, Why Habit Formation Research Should Guide Your Brand Strategy.

To learn more about our habit formation framework, download our ebook, The Behavioral Science of Habit Formation.


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