COVID-19 Retail Hoarding is the New Privilege
In this current COVID-19 world, news headlines all but bludgeon us with stories of consumers hoarding merchandise and images of endless, empty shelves. Somehow, those empty shelves are connected to pictures of shoppers pushing overflowing carts. The truth is, they would be more correct to connect those empty shelves to the pictures of shoppers standing in line, waiting for their turn to stroll the aisles.
A new data analysis from Numerator tells a different, more complete story. The analysis reviewed average weekly buying across 100,000 panelists who mirror the U.S. population, and identified in-store stockpiling behaviors at three thresholds: pantry-fill, stock-up, and ”hoarding” (also known as extended event prep), defined as 1.5x, 2.5x and 4x their average behavior.
Here’s what the analysis revealed, and what brands, retailers and analysts need to understand about stockpiling:
- Stockpiling behaviors naturally occur over time, regardless of COVID-19. In an average week, an estimated 22 percent of households buy at the pantry-fill level, 6.5 percent exhibit stocking up behavior, and 2 percent at the hoarding level.
- During “normal” times, stockpiling behaviors trend toward lower-income households. Lower-income household buying tends to look more like a significant monthly shopping trip, followed by smaller fill-in trips.
- During COVID-19, higher-income households have increased stockpiling behavior — because they can afford to. Increases in stockpiling behavior start with households at $60,000-$80,000 in annual income, indexing at 112 vs. “their” average behavior. That climbs to a 120 index by the $100,000 annual income threshold.
However, the real key for brands and retailers is to analyze the impact of stockpiling behaviors during the COVID-19 era with insight into the delta between those behaviors and the organic stockpiling behaviors that are already part of consumer behavior. A failure to interpret trends with this nuanced understanding could dramatically misrepresent how brands and retailers plan for a post-COVID world.
The Numerator Shopping Behavior Index shows that:
- The biggest variable during late February and early March was a jump in the total volumes of households out shopping. That means the primary driver was so many more households active in the buying cycle — more about the long lines to get in and the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, less about selfish neighbors.
- In fact, average basket sizes were roughly flat vs. one year ago right up until the March 11 inflection point (the day Tom & Rita came out, the NBA cancelled its season, and European travel restrictions were announced). That means shoppers were out and about — and once in-store, spent at their regular spend levels.
So what happened after March 11? Consumer behavior changed that day as rapidly as everything else. The Numerator Shopping Index shows channel after channel “moving to the green” or overindexing vs. a year ago by the week ending March 16. It’s like a light switch went on (and maybe it did).
So only in week 11 (mid-March) did we start to see consumers increase spending more on individual trips. That’s because consumer sentiment has been slow to keep pace with reality (just like those college kids refusing to give up their spring break). The week ending March 17, a customer Numerator survey verified that only 15 percent of consumers rated concern about COVID-19 a 10/10. That same score rose to 25 percent in a survey of those same consumers for the week ending March 24.
Numerator Surveys show those same consumers still have the greatest concern about not being able to find items in stock or stores open, with 71 percent and 61 percent, respectively, identifying these concerns. Broadly speaking, consumer concerns still peak with convenience issues (like stock availability and store hours), followed by economic concern about job losses. Health and well-being related concerns — like the ability to secure health insurance for illnesses and help friends/family in need — are identified by 44 percent of respondents. Concern about contracting the illness personally or having someone in one’s family contract the illness is still just 34 percent.
The hoarding behaviors we see in the media really are an anomaly. Stockpiling is up, yes, and, perhaps the rich have the privilege of practicing that behavior even while concerns about interrupted plans exceed concerns about contracting the virus.
Kelly Dotson is the chief marketing officer of Numerator, a data and tech company serving the market research space.