Everybody is talking about how the coronavirus has changed our everyday lives: we are locked indoors, shops and bars and restaurants are closed, public transport is to be avoided, and we should stay two metres away from each other at all times (I haven’t yet broken it to my husband that this doesn’t apply to him). Those who can work at home are doing so, many others have been furloughed, and the five-day working week, with a two-day weekend, has begun to creak and show the strains.
These physical manifestations are significant enough, and they are the obvious outward signs of a changed dynamic. But it strikes me, coming from a background in psychology and the study of human behaviour, that there is something else at work here. Our interactions with retailers, the whole way in which we relate to the people and companies who sell us everyday goods, has changed, and maybe that change will be a permanent one.
In normal times – remember them? – our relationship with retailers, especially in the everyday grocery sector, is fairly transactional. They serve a need to supply us with basic goods, and they do that in a variety of ways, from cheap’n’cheerful to high-end, high-quality produce. Shoppers pick and choose according to budget, geography, habit, value for money and a hundred other micro-decisions, and, although supermarkets make great play of their loyalty cards, the ironic truth is that we don’t show very much loyalty at all. It’s rare to find someone who only shops in Sainsbury’s and wouldn’t cross the threshold of Tesco or M&S, and the German giants Aldi and Lidl have made huge inroads into some sections of the weekly shop across the income range.
As a result, our connection with supermarket brands is not generally an especially deep or emotional one. It’s about ‘convenience’, in whatever form that takes.
As a result, our connection with supermarket brands is not generally an especially deep or emotional one. It’s about ‘convenience’, in whatever form that takes. But I think that’s changing in the current public health crisis. People are suddenly very aware of how different companies are reacting to the impact of COVID-19, in terms of panic buying, stock shortages, difficulties with staff and the ever-present danger of infection.
Sainsbury’s and Iceland, for example, have introduced reserved hours for the elderly to do their shopping. Many supermarkets for a time limited the number of items of one kind that customers could buy (though some, including Waitrose, have now relaxed this for fresh produce). There have been lots of different efforts to encourage social distancing, from controlling the number of shoppers allowed into a store at any one time, to tape on the floor marking out a “safe” distance between customers.
It’s not for me to be cynical and say that these are purely public relations stunts. No retailer wants its customers to come to harm, so introducing protective measures is good business sense. But it is undoubtedly true that consumers will be watching the behaviour of major retail chains carefully, and they will draw conclusions which may influence their shopping habits long after this crisis has passed.
The relationship, you see, has changed. I think there is now a much greater sense of cooperation between retailers and customers, a sense of shared endeavour. I know how much the British love to queue, but, even with that national predilection, it has been extraordinary to see orderly, well-spaced queues of patient shoppers outside supermarkets, even engaged in a form of self-regulation; the elderly are often nodded quietly and politely to the front of the line, no fuss, no hoopla, just a temporary community prioritising those most in need.
Where the supermarkets are seen to have behaved well, I think consumers are regarding them as allies in a common struggle. Although there were initial scenes of unpleasantness and even violence when the panic buying began, now that a degree of restraint and limitation has been accepted, I think we are seeing shoppers acquiesce and consent to these limits, acknowledging that we must all pull together.
I can’t predict where this will end, where we will be when we emerge from the other side of the coronavirus crisis, dusting ourselves off and surveying the landscape. But I do think there will have been a shift in the way we interact with those who sell us our daily bread, and, who knows, maybe it will be a welcome one. More of a partnership, a cooperation, a joint enterprise. Maybe the future isn’t so bad after all.