On February 4th, the first case of the new coronavirus outbreak, COVID-19, emerged in Belgium. Though initially contained, the virus spread almost a month later—approximately a month after neighbors in Italy, Germany and France and directly corresponding to the school holidays where many families traveled to the north of Italy for ski vacations.
After analyzing the implications of the pandemic on consumption across the globe, particularly in China, Italy and the U.S., we’ve found that the spread of the COVID-19 virus has led to successive consumer reactions. And in Belgium, shopper habits have followed a pattern similar to that observed in other countries. Increased hand sanitizing gel sales were the first indication of a change in behavior, accompanied by a growing spiral of precautionary purchases.
“The uncertainty surrounding the current health situation is having a growing influence on the behaviour of consumers, who are following the government’s health instructions, but are also taking precautionary measures,” noted Johan Vrancken, Managing Director of Nielsen Benelux. “What was left of hand sanitizers was flying off the shelves, with many retailers already out-of-stock.”
This impact on the sales of disinfectant gels, groceries, and other food products have taken hold in Belgium, evident in retail sales.
FIRSTLY, IN SEARCH OF SANITIZING SOLUTIONS
In Italy and the U.S., sales of masks and hand disinfectant gels were the first indicators of a change in consumption as a result of the health situation. This was also the case in Belgium, where volume sales of hand sanitizing gels rose 495% in the ninth week year-on-year. Between the sixth and ninth week, after the first infection reported in Europe (January 24th, week 4, in France), sales were up +245% versus the previous year.
WEEK OF FEBRUARY 24 TO MARCH 1: NOTICEABLY STOCKING UP
Looking at pandemic pantry items that consumers tend to stock up on during “emergencies” (cleaning products, pasta, rice, canned preserves in particular), we didn’t see a huge impact in the first eight weeks of the year, but corresponding to the spread in Belgium (week nine), it’s clear that consumers are anticipating their purchases before a possible crisis situation arises.
Between Monday, February 24th to Sunday, March 1st, sales rose considerably in a representative group of mass consumption categories. Rice (up 40%) volume sales increased considerably versus the same period the year prior, along with dehydrated potatoes (32%) and pasta (28%).
Though Belgian consumers aren’t yet panicking, they’re definitely taking preventative measures to contain the virus using government-recommended personal hygiene tactics.
“COVID-19 quickly evolved from a distant issue happening in “other countries” to a very real one in Belgium,” says Johan. ”The Belgians, supported by an informed government and public, are taking proper precautions to limit the spread of the virus as much as possible— while at the same time stocking on their pandemic pantries…just in case.”
THINKING BEYOND THE BUG
In many instances, pantry stockpiling will simply bring forward future purchases (e.g., toilet paper, medical supplies), and there will be a mid-term sales trough as these products are gradually consumed. However, other categories, particularly shelf-stable food products, will experience expansion as households potentially consume more in-home than they usually would.
Another trend for manufacturers and retailers to keep an eye on is a rise in online pantry stocking. In other markets, including China and Australia, fear of a medical pandemic has spurred a new wave of growth for online grocery. With an easy shopping experience, competitive prices and convenient delivery and/or pickup options, Belgian consumers may similarly turn to e-commerce in turbulent times and may be open to exploring alternate retailing options if stock is available. Having an effective online strategy in place is becoming increasingly critical for retailers and brands; and measuring the continued growth of this channel is key to understanding how it fits in within shoppers’ buying patterns and overall spending repertoire.