Matching market and brand strategy to changes in consumers’ habitual buying behaviour due to Covid-19

To the extent that the Covid-19 pandemic may change certain fundamental patterns of consumer behaviour, companies must carefully consider how to adjust their market strategies and tactics accordingly.

One classic pattern of consumer behaviour that seems to be subject to change due to Covid-19, is the so called habitual buying behaviour.

Under normal circumstances, one of the most defining patterns of consumer behaviour is indeed the fact that consumer behaviour is to a large extent based on habits. We buy and use the same products and services week after week, month after month, year after year. 

Most notably, a very high proportion of consumers’ shopping baskets at supermarkets remain the same week after week. This applies to both product categories purchased in the first place (what to buy?), and brands selected within product categories (which brand to pick?). It also very much applies to longer-term service subscriptions (e.g., banking services; media and home entertainment subscriptions) and seasonal purchases (e.g., gardening supplies purchased in spring; holiday purchases in November and December).

The main reason for habitual buying behaviour is that it allows consumers to save some of the mental and physical effort that reconsidering one’s shopping basket selections or brand choices tends to require. It is mentally and physically easier to simply shop your goods with an auto pilot on, relying on your established shopping habits – rather than every time reevaluate your needs and wants, and/or the benefits and costs of switching products and services or brands in your basket.

However, the repercussions caused by a crisis like Covid-19 may cause disruptions to such habits, shaking and waking up consumers from their conventions – disengaging their auto pilots.

Especially big brands and market-leading companies have to be alert with potential changes in consumers’ habitual behaviors. This is because it is especially the big brands and market leaders who have a large customer base – a large proportion of which is constituted precisely of such consumers who are normally just sticking to their habits and buying the same brand time after time. A non-negligible share of these habitual buyers is even likely to be rather dissatisfied with the brand or service-provider. They have just been sticking to the brand to save the trouble caused by switching brands or suppliers.

In this situation, the Covid-19 crisis may act as a wake-up call to many consumers. This is because consumers are in any case pressured to put some more careful thought and effort to their everyday shopping practices – and therefore to recognizing and reevaluating the appropriateness and rationality of their habits, too. If the consumer has to, in any case, much more carefully reconsider and plan when to shop, what to shop, and where to shop, it is not a big step or additional effort to also reconsider which  product categories and brands to select into one’s basket, when going shopping.

Big brands can fight this challenge in three ways. The brand can (1) identify such habitual buyers of the brand that are actually dissatisfied with the brand, and either contact them to ask what the brand can do better, or show them that the brand appreciates them by granting some extra regular customer reward to them. The brand can also (2) think of new ways through which consumers can access, purchase, and use its products and services, even if the habitual purchase channels and ways of use would become difficult or impossible due to restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Finally, brands can also (3) seize opportunities created by disruptions in habitual purchase and usage patterns. Under normal circumstances, brands often find it challenging to introduce new, innovative products and services – because consumers are so accustomed to their existing, familiar options. Nevertheless, when reconsidering their consumption habits under Covid-19, consumers may well become more open-minded towards new kinds of – non-habitual — products and services, too.

Jaakko Aspara
Grönroos Professor in Marketing

Photo: Unsplash