In ‘The Paradox of Choice’, Barry Schwartz stated that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers. It is a known, and well-studied fact that most shoppers have groups of swappable brands in both their consideration sets and shopping baskets. Some would say that the preference for certain brands sprouts from favourable and/or mental availability, while others believe that it is a survival habit to help the consumers stop drowning in a sea of proliferating brands.

The retail industry is undergoing an unprecedented transformation ignited by the global COVID-19 pandemic. What does this mean for brands now that COVID-19 has disrupted our shopping habits more than we could ever have possibly imagined?

Picture this: you go to your usual supermarket, in your usual clothes, thinking of buying your usual brands of usual products. What could change your buying habits? It could be:
It could be:

  1. Sales promotion – who doesn’t like to save money? Sales promotion always entice people, and since the advent of marketing have trained shoppers to stock up on the cheapest brand available without bias.

  2. Your regular brand undergoing a package change, which is a very common happening which would make it hard to locate.


  3. “Forced trial”, which happens when consumers are forced to buy a product from another unknown brand because of an unavailability of their regular brand.

In the Harvard Business Review article ‘Stock-Outs Cause Walkouts’ we see that over a quarter of shoppers will simply buy another brand if theirs is out of stock on shelf, in the best of times.

Forced trial at retail

Kantar asked these questions in both the US and Canada over the past couple of weeks, and found some interesting points of reconsideration happening across different categories that have been flying off the shelves lately:

  1. A third (34%) of Canadians have been forced to try different brands of toilet Paper, and over half (54%) of these new triers claimed they may consider purchasing them even when this is over.
  2. Pasta saw a similar percentage of forced trialists (32%), but three quarters (75%) claimed they may consider the new brand they experienced.
  3. Diapers are often considered to be a fiercely loyal category, but almost four in ten (39%) have had to try another brand and over half (54%) claim they may consider the new brand
  4. Peanut Butter has experienced the smallest degree of forced trial (19%) so far. However, two thirds (67%) of them liked the new brand enough to say they will consider that brand after COVID-19.


In one of our previous blog posts, we talked about what has changed during this COVID-19 pandemic in terms of media consumption, how it has fallen in some places while it boomed on other platforms, types of media, etc.

When it comes to product consumption, people are still spending, which is good. The important to note is where and how they are spending, how their needs are changing. It’s crucial to monitor customer conversations to have a clear understanding of how their habits are evolving, how their interactions with the brand are shifting, and where the brand can meet their changing needs.

Monitoring social conversations, analyzing data, learning from what other retailers are doing well and not doing well, and having direct conversations with customers and industry stakeholders are all keys to ensuring positive engagement with consumers.

Two potential tactics to remain visible and alive are:

  • Increase/maintain visibility through advertising.
    Now is not the time to go dark and abandon the positive associations and top-of-mind availability your brand has invested so much into building. Recent Kantar research would suggest that COVID-19 has not changed consumer attitudes to advertising. However, brands shouldn’t be tone deaf to the sensitivities of the current situation.
  • Increase availability of core SKUs (stock-keeping unit) through decreasing space for others.
    Panicked shoppers line-up six feet apart to stock-up for week or two, and have a tendency to buy more than what they need. With good category management and retailer co-operation, existing shelf space could be shifted to the hero SKUs within the brand set for the time being.

That would reduce brand switching and/or retail defection. Obviously, incremental display would help, but that is often booked well in advance and all categories are competing for the space.


The current landscape change has forced businesses and brands alike to change their marketing strategy, and with the upcoming economic hardship, brands can expect customers to shift to more budget-friendly alternatives.

It is not clear as to when we will see a stabilisation in consumer pattern, but one thing is for sure: brands will now have to come up with strategies that reflect the consumers’ needs and desires. It might be tempting to wait until the pandemic is over to start researching the “new customers” but if brands wait too long, they might lose the battle in the face of consumers’ new habits.