What we think

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We are what we buy: A look at our new shopping habits

11th March 2021

by Lucy McMullan

Just like March 2020, March 2021 is a month of huge change for us all. Boris’s ‘’roadmap’ begins this month with the return of schools, and we’ve all got certain dates etched on our brains I’m sure! As we enter this new phase I think it’s a good time to reflect on the things I’ve seen and heard over the last few months and also to consider what might be ahead for me – as a recruiter and consumer – in 2021.

To help me with my thoughts I attended a webinar hosted by The Grocer last week, titled “Grocery after 2020: How Shoppers have changed and what’s next”. As part of my role as a Retail recruiter, I keep up to date with consumer habits and FMCG trends that will ultimately affect the work I do. This webinar offered really valuable insight, focusing on the explosion of online shopping and the panel’s opinions and predictions on its impact. Furthermore, the panel addressed the way brands have had to adapt to this changing behaviour. I attended the webinar out of pure curiosity, however it prompted a lot of self-reflection, some of which I’ve set out in this article.


Sociable brands


Clearly, the rise in online shopping has had an enormous impact on the talent requirements of brands. Businesses are obviously identifying gaps in their ecommerce and marketing capabilities brought about by the pandemic. As we are now 3 months into 2021, it is clear that this focus on ecommerce and marketing – especially digital – is here to stay.

I looked over all the ecommerce and marketing job descriptions I have sent out to candidates over the last 3 months and across the board there is now a tendency for hiring managers to include “Social media” responsibilities as the very first bullet point, specifically referring to the use of TikTok. Compare this to March 2020, where Social media was (argue rightly or wrongly!), significantly further down the bullet pointed list of key requirements, and the use of TikTok was nowhere to be seen!

Over the past few months, TikTok has become an invaluable tool for some food and drink companies. Think of the likes of snacking SME Little Moons – who experienced a viral sensation that actually led to a sales increase (the holy grail of social activity!), with people rushing to their local supermarket to get their hands on a pack. The brand has experienced enormous growth, all due to TikTok. The biggest learning for me here is how viral sensations – or any effective digital marketing activity – is actually driven by the consumer rather than the brand. It’s the sharing of the content by consumers that creates the peer-to-peer influence behind the purchasing decisions. It’s such a departure from traditional marketing channels and this consumer-first positioning will be adopted across the whole industry I’m sure.


Small to medium excitement!


From a recruitment perspective, this has meant smaller brands are incredibly appealing to candidates in the current market. Their ability to adapt to trends and capitalise on them means SMEs are increasingly attractive to candidates. Over the last few months, I have had countless conversations with candidates, who are looking to join EXCITING, DYNAMIC and NIMBLE businesses.

This absolutely does not mean the appeal of big brands is lost. It simply means that big brands HAVE to be more adventurous in order to engage with consumers and ultimately candidates. As mentioned in the webinar, due to lockdown, brands cannot engage in experiential marketing anymore; they can’t hand out samples in train stations to commuters. Similarly, there is little point in spending lots of money on billboard displays in cities – people are simply not there to consume this marketing.

Brands have to speak to consumers elsewhere. Another great example of this is the co-ordinated social campaign for Weetabix and Heinz Baked Beans. The companies garnered a huge amount of attention across all social channels with a clever multi-brand approach that led to a spike in sales for Weetabix. It’s a great example of how companies are pivoting their marketing focus to appeal to consumers’ changed habits.

The effect of these changes is being felt in recruitment. A big candidate frustration in 2020 was the way companies would sometimes combine ecommerce positions, for example requesting a “Jack of all trades” Marketeer, who was an expert across website management, social media/digital and brand management. Now, more and more businesses are differentiating these roles into 3 separate positions.


We are what we buy


The effect of lockdown has been felt everywhere but in terms of trends it’s very evident that being home-based has made a lot of us think differently about how we eat. The Grocer statistics highlighted health, environment, reducing spend and a more ‘adventurous’ approach to cooking as key trends for consumers, so let’s take a look at those in more detail.

Of course the removal of the commute from many working lives has preceded a drop in sales of convenience foods; ready meals in particular. Sales of chilled ready meals fell 3.6% in 2020*, reflecting the increased amount of time we have spent at home. Conversely, sales of recipe boxes have surged, seeing triple-figure growth for the major players in the category**and showing that although we might want to cook, we don’t quite want to do the whole thing ourselves! I think the great advantage of recipe boxes (after the ease) is the reduced potential for waste – the Waitrose food & drink report highlighted that reducing waste was a key concern for the over 55’s (an age bracket with a high grocery spend and therefore influence).

The change in shopping habits has also led to consumers considering their purchasing decisions in a new light. The environmental impact of a brand is increasingly important to us. There are some really encouraging signs here, with Aldi UK announcing their plastic-free Easter egg and numerous brands becoming B-Corp certified in recent weeks, including Brew Dog.

The price of a product, whilst important, is often not the deciding factor in what we buy, with 33% of shoppers surveyed reporting plastic packaging as their most pressing issue for the food industry. Second on the list of priorities was reducing food waste, compounding my thoughts above.

In terms of recruitment, I’ve already seen an increase in candidates looking for those more niche employers who have the agility and dynamism to really focus on reducing their environmental impact and cleaning up their supply chain. Just like the challenge to attract consumers, brands are also facing a challenge to attract candidates who are willing to be more adventurous and re-examining potential employers with new eyes following the huge changes in their lives. Brands must find other ways of appealing to candidates, to get the right talent on board.

There is so much to think about and say about this momentous time we are living through. Ultimately I have a career in consumer goods and these are intrinsically linked to consumer habits, so it’s fascinating to me to consider all of this and then I’m better placed to advise candidates who are looking for a move and perhaps unsure of how these changes might affect their careers. Ultimately we are all in this together and nobody is unaffected, so give me a call or drop me a message if any of this resonates with you as I’d love to get some insight from my network on this!




** https://www.ft.com/content/90b7e7a6-f22d-44f1-93da-eeaad80fc70c

Image via Unsplash.com




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