China was the world’s first epicentre of the COVID-19 epidemic, and the first to essentially be moving into ‘recovery’ mode as it emerges from a nationwide quarantine, so consumer response here could very well also be a first example of how purchasing patterns may change post-pandemic.
According to consumer insights analysts, one of the main changes expected to emerge is a shift towards higher purchases of foods for at-home cooking via e-commerce (e.g. fresh vegetable, meat, uncooked noodles), as opposed to convenience and speed which were largely dominant before this.
This is likely because most restaurants and other food service chains had to close during the quarantine, cutting them off from food delivery services and driving them towards preparing meals at home instead.
“The COVID-19 epidemic is quickly revolutionising how consumers from Chinese mainland think about their health, as well as changing their purchase behaviour and the channels they are using to shop,” said Nielsen China President Justin Sargent.
“In-home eating experiences have been reset – even after life returns to normal post COVID-19, [Chinese consumers] are emerging with more of a ‘homebody’ mindset, [and] for many consumers used to eating on-the-go, home cooking may be a new concept or habit, and they will need help to adjust to this new world.”
Nielsen data revealed that some 67% of Chinese consumers purchased daily necessities and fresh foods more than twice a week during the pandemic, and 89% were inclined to continue using online avenues to do so even after the pandemic passes. 80% also said that healthy eating would be an area of focus for them after this.
These findings have been corroborated by separate research from Havas China, which reported massive growth across fresh food e-commerce platforms such as Hema, Dmall, JD Daojia and Miss Fresh after the Chinese New Year period in its Coronavirus Market Update.
“The fastest-growing search keywords on these platforms were eggs (70.9%), noodles (62.1%) and fruits (56.1%),” said Havas China.
“Housebound consumers are turning to online groceries for their daily food supply.”
Other crucial keyword searches indicating that foods are being purchased for at-home cooking included oil (38.9%), vegetables (37.6%) and pork (32.8%).
JD also reported a 215% year-on-year growth for online groceries around the time that COVID-19 first hit, and 260% in the month that followed.
“Once people started self-quarantining at home due to COVID-19, the demand for fresh food online shot up dramatically. [Such was the demand that] JD had to source from other offline sources to fulfil online demand,” said the company in its COVID-19 retail report.
“[JD looked at multiple solutions for this], such as JD Fresh Basket to source fresh foods from other offline sources and Omnichannel Fulfillment to source rice/oil, so as to enable JD to extend our inventory and get more customers what they needed quickly.”
In a separate interview, Ai Palette CEO and Co-Founder Somsubhra Ganchoudhuri also told FoodNavigator-Asia that their AI technology had collected over a billion food and beverage-related data points from the Chinese market, and seen a similar pattern emerge as well.
“The trend we are seeing in China is that people are opting to make the foods they miss from outside at home instead, so are purchasing the ingredients to make these separately,” he said.
“A very solid example in China is milk tea, a big category here. Purchases of brown sugar, milk and tea rose immensely, [as opposed to] actual milk tea purchases from outside.
“Purchases of health-related foods, especially those good for immunity like Chinese jujube, also saw a large rise.”
Ai Palette’s technology has also predicted that the trend of increased ingredient purchases for at-home cooking is likely to expand to the rest of Asia, similar to how it has grown in China.
What this means for food firms and retailers
With such a significant focus shift, what this would mean for food companies operating in China is a need to concentrate efforts on revamping business strategies in this area, especially those who have only focused on convenience and ready-to-go in the past.
“This represents a key opportunity for manufacturers, retailers [and all food businesses] to rethink health offerings and raise the bar even higher, ensuring their assortment satisfies expanding demand [as well as] high quality and hygiene standards,” said Sargent.
“For retailers, deepening online channels, improving offline-to-online services further and accelerating multi-channel integration will be how consumers shop in the future.”
That said, whilst Nielsen appears confident that this change will be a long-lasting one, Havas is less certain about this persisting past the pandemic period.
“The coronavirus outbreak triggered this growth and behaviour change, [seeing] many new users, especially in older age groups and lower-tier cities that might have tried online shopping for the first time,” it stated.
“The enduring effects will be shown when things fully return to normal.”