KANSAS CITY, MO. – As the United States attempts to prepare for and slow the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), consumers are quickly changing the ways they shop and the qualities they look for in their food. 

While purchases of pre-packaged foods, drinks, frozen and canned goods have skyrocketed, consumers are becoming increasingly skeptical of dairy, fruit, vegetable and meat products. According to Nielsen, shoppers are leery of fresh products that have travelled far because of the increased likelihood of multiple human touchpoints before reaching the shelves in the grocery store. 

More than ever, customers will want to know more about a product’s supply chain from farm to factory to shelf and the safety measures taken along the way to ensure food safety. It’s going to be important for retailers to mitigate customer concerns, which Nielsen predicts is a strong opportunity to leverage locally sourced products.  

“Consumers will be seeking greater assurance that the products they buy are free of risk and of the highest quality when it comes to safety standards and efficacy, particularly with respect to cleaning products, antiseptics and food items,” wrote Regan Leggett, executive director of Nielsen Global Intelligence. 

“In the short term,” he continued, “this intensified demand from consumers will require manufacturers, retailers and other related industry players to clearly communicate why their products and supply chains should be trusted. In the longer term, and dependent on the eventual scale and impact that COVID-19 has on consumer markets, it may speed up a re-think on how shoppers evaluate purchases and the benefits that they see as the key factors to consider.” 

Brands and retailers can meet consumer expectations by highlighting steps taken to ensure a healthy, hygienic and safe presentation of products, especially important in the fresh category. In the United States particularly, a lack of paid sick leave for retail workers leaves room for customer concern about who is handling the products they buy, all the way up until they walk them out of the store. Some companies have adjusted their policies to give employees increased paid sick leave, which signals a proactive stance to prevent the spread of coronavirus. 

Retailers may also want to consider additional protective packaging for fresh foods – both locally and globally sourced – but will need to strike a balance between concerns over both health and environmental impact. 

A Nielsen study of the United States markets found that consumers quickly process new outbreak information and make spending decisions accordingly. Globally, 49% of shoppers are highly willing to trade up in price for high quality assurances and verifiable safety standards. A previous Nielsen report highlighted that the top reasons consumers switch brands were due to value then followed by quality, but in lieu of coronavirus, Leggett predicts the importance of those attributes will flip in ranking. 

As the spread of coronavirus progresses, marketers will need to be able to understand the nuance of local concerns, which gives local suppliers another advantage for appealing to consumers. Smaller manufacturers will likely be able to respond quicker and in more targeted ways. 

Although the United States has not yet reached this point, some countries have completely shut down their borders, increasing retail dependence on products companies can source within the borders of their country. 

Nielsen is continuing to monitor changes in consumer behavior resulting from the ongoing global health crisis. 

“The outbreak has already caused an array of changes in shopping behavior,” said Scott McKenzie, Nielsen’s global intelligence leader. “We’re focused on understanding the ones that will come next, how long they’ll last – and whether any will stay with us after the outbreak is behind us.”