We have gotten used to our life with COVID-19 and perhaps that is why our level of concern continues to drop. However, that doesn’t mean consumers are letting their guards down easily.
As we tread into our 11th pulse check, we are finding that consumers are feeling about living with the pandemic, but they also don’t see it ending any time soon. Shopping is no longer as scary as it used to be, but many rely on protection such as face masks and hand sanitizer when venturing out. Data also suggests that despite being more open to lifting the restrictions, respondents continue to be unpleased with our nation’s response to the crisis.
It’s clear that we are no longer stunned by the virus. We have digested the reality and are learning how to function within the given constraints. Some industries have adapted well to these consumers’ sentiments and concerns, such as grocery stores. On the other hand, this ‘new normal’ is going to be harder to adjust to for sit-down restaurants. Fewer than 1 in 5 of our respondents reported they have eaten at a sit-down restaurant, and a large majority of consumers still do not feel comfortable with the idea of eating out.
With the help of Mary Cooper from IRI Growth Consulting, we examine where the U.S. consumer mind is at amidst the current climate and we ponder the future of food and food service industries.
Pulse check on June 6: Settling in, but highly aware.
Rasto Ivanic, GroupSolver: Pulse check number 11! And people are feeling better than two weeks ago, which was better than two weeks before that. So, are we officially over the hump and summer vacation can now begin?
Mary Cooper, IRI: Hey, summertime sounds great to me and sounds great to everyone else I’m sure! People want to move forward and resume some more normal activities. The summer weather and being able to get outside should help spirits.
RI: The data is showing that people are less worried. Perhaps they are just desensitized to the threat and perhaps they are truly less worried. But considering this data and the following chart about employment that keeps decreasing as well, it seems like people are feeling a little bit better. Maybe this is the good news we’ve been waiting for.
MC: This news does look like some positive momentum with consumer sentiment.
RI: For this report, we added one new chart. We have been quietly collecting data asking about whether people know anyone who’s had COVID-19. We broke down the concern data by those who do know someone with COVID-19. You can see that the worry over the virus is significantly higher for those respondents. By the way, in this last pulse check, about 30% knew somebody who had had COVID-19.
RI: Speaking of trends, the behavior about food purchases data aligns with the peak of concern we saw about a month ago. That’s where people were more willing to do online grocery shopping. Since then we’ve seen a decline. People seem to be venturing into getting their groceries in-person more freely than before.
MC: That is true. It looks like the biggest spike was around May 10th and now people are seemingly adjusting their behaviors. I am curious to see how this evolves now that restaurants are opening–up.
RI: My hypothesis would be that this trend will continue for a little while, and if there is a second wave, it would be interesting to see if that fear picks up and it again starts leading to more online purchases and eating at home.
MC: There’s two points I am thinking about here. When we started the purchasing online, we were at around 39%. Now we are at 49% and I don’t know if we’ll ever go below that original 39%. My prediction is that more people are going to grow accustomed to this and the nuances of it, and the supply chain is going to manage it better. So, in general, we’ve probably propped up online grocery shopping a little bit faster or at least more so than if we never had COVID. Another thing is that we saw a little bit of a down-turn on the takeout and delivery, but that could be because more people are now actually going into restaurants.
RI: That makes a lot of sense. Now talking about people eating out at restaurants, not too many ventured out. Only 17% said they did go out and eat at a sit-down restaurant. And those who did, a vast majority said that they felt at least somewhat comfortable doing so. The interesting thing to me was when we asked them ‘compared to pre-COVID, are you going to go more or less frequently?’ Looking at top and bottom two boxes, we see data skewing toward eating out less. That is concerning if you own a sit-down restaurant, in addition to the extra cost you’re now incurring because of all the precautions you have to take.
MC: Not only do they incur the cost of the extra precautions, but they also have staffing issues. A lot of these restaurants are staffing outside which can be unpredictable. Plus, restaurants seat fewer people and are investing in outdoor set-ups.
RI: We also asked people who didn’t go out to a restaurant what it would take for them to go eat at a sit-down restaurant. As you can see, they want to feel that social distance is in place, staff are wearing masks, deep cleaning, etc. On the one hand, restaurants are saying that it’s what they are doing, yet on the other hand, many consumers are still not wanting to eat out. I imagine that it could be due to lack of trust, which takes time to build. Consumers were able to see the protocols being implemented in a grocery store, and they became comfortable shopping there. But they can’t see what is going on inside a restaurant, they can’t see what is going on inside the kitchen… at least not yet. This may be a fundamental difference between retail and food service that food service will need to address.
Question: What would it take for you to eat at a sit-down restaurant in the next several weeks?
MC: I’ve also heard people having their temperature taken before going inisde of restaurants. I wonder does that makes them feel better or does it bring a heightened awareness?
RI: Well, let’s talk about the people who actually did eat at restaurants. For those who said they felt comfortable, we asked them what it was that made them comfortable. Besides those very few people who just aren’t worried about the virus in general, most are saying that they have seen protocols in place, whether it be spacing between tables, servers wearing masks or sanitizing.
MC: I think that’s the cost of doing business for restaurants. They need to provide the space and make people feel comfortable. It’s another level of work effort for them. Another oddity is that the restaurant staff wear the masks and the patrons don’t when they are eating and drinking. While this is necessity for patrons, it seems like a bit of a double standard.
Question: What specifically made you comfortable?
RI: This is a good segue to the question, Mary, you wanted to ask last time we spoke. You wanted to know if people are still concerned about going shopping. This could be a preview for what may happen with sit-down restaurants as they begin to reopen. They are 2-3 months behind grocery stores, which had to adopt precautions quickly to stay open as essential service. You see on the left that it still shows some concern, but less than what we probably would have gotten a few months ago.
MC: What’s happened now is that a lot of retailers have put protocols in place and communicated them to the shoppers so they feel more comfortable. And then there’s local jurisdiction putting ordinances in place for shoppers to wear masks.
RI: I think that the level of protection and the fact that people are used personal protection is also reflected on the chart on the right. Maybe that’s why they feel more comfortable: they are not just physically protected, they are ‘feeling’ protected.
RI: The last thing I’d like to touch on is, how are we doing? The pie chart on the left is showing that people are maybe feeling more ready for restrictions to be lifted. But the grades on the right are still not looking good – people are not happy.
MC: This will be interesting to see as a trend over time. People are at various stages of concern and acceptance. Plus there are big variances as to how people protect themselves. Hopefully, we will see a more positive turn in the near future.
RI: I would expect that until we have a vaccine, the grade will not go above a C. So much in our health and our economy is riding on the success of COVID-19 vaccine that I am having hard time imagining that anything but a success on that field will move the needle with consumer confidence.
Mary Cooper is a Senior Principal at IRI Growth Consulting with a focus on CPG and Retail. Rasto Ivanic is a founder and CEO of GroupSolver.
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