Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Some shifts in consumer habits may outlast covid
Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Opinion | Some shifts in consumer habits may outlast covid

If people get used to eating at home, it may not be good news for the restaurant biz

Last week, a survey conducted by pollster LocalCircles asked Indian consumers if they were willing to return to gyms and cinemas. The survey was held just before Unlock 3.0 guidelines were issued by the ministry of home affairs. Although the government allowed gyms to open with strict social-distancing norms, it did not give its nod to cinema theatres to resume operations, at least in August.

Incidentally, the survey, which reached out to 18,000 people, found that only 6% of the respondents were ready to visit cinemas in the next 60 days if they reopened, while a majority felt it was a very risky proposition. Asked about gyms, only 6% of the respondents said they would follow the pre-covid schedule, while another 3% said they would visit less frequently. Clearly, only a small number of people are confident of venturing out despite the curbs easing.

To be sure, even though restaurants were allowed to resume dine-in facilities in June, eateries are still struggling to lure customers.

People are not really going all out, and fear is a big factor influencing their behaviour, said Sanjay Chugh, senior consultant psychiatrist. He should know for he has never been as busy as he has been in the past four months. Cases of depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and substance abuse have risen sharply and are directly attributable to covid-19. These are driven by apprehensions of contracting the disease or a loved one getting infected, job loss or business closure, among others.

With people cooped up at home for more than four months, some of their new habits are unlikely to change.

Without getting into the details of what these could be, Chugh explained that any habit is formed by repetition of a certain behaviour over a certain length of time.

“There’s a neuro-psychiatric phenomenon called neuroplasticity where you keep doing the same thing and it becomes your default mode of behaviour, default mode of thinking, or default mode of emotional patterns," he said.

So, whatever habits have been picked up in the past 18-20 weeks, and if people have been pursuing those on a regular basis, “there is no way they will overcome those habits without putting in a lot of effort", he added.

If people are now accustomed to eating at home, buying online and not visiting malls, it may not be good news for the entertainment sectors such as cinemas, malls and restaurants.

Independent consumer behaviour expert Sraboni Bhaduri said fear is not allowing people to step out. “Some people think covid is like a death sentence. So, they are avoiding closed spaces. They are out, just not in malls and restaurants. They are in parks: hordes are thronging open gyms. Or, they are out cycling."

Consumers have gone back to some age-old notions of ‘purity’ to safeguard themselves against covid. “Some of which have no scientific thinking. Parks are associated with fresh air, but there’s total disregard for safety in using open gym equipment," she said. Cooking at home also feels safe as the purity of ghar ka khana can be vouched for. However, eateries and shopping complexes are empty not just on account of fear, but also because consumers’ discretionary incomes have shrunk owing to salary cuts, job losses and business disruptions.

“From an ultra-high consumption society, which rose pretty rapidly in the last couple of decades, we are now down to consuming less," said Bhaduri. Fashion purchase, for instance, is likely to see a shift. Elaborate wardrobes with summer, fall and winter collections may be revised to accommodate fewer pieces. The diminished requirement for formal clothing may reset purchase behaviour. “World over, there’s talk of slow fashion. Clearly, some dissonance has set in with regard to extensive fast-fashion wardrobes."

The pandemic has pushed people to question things. “They are not running up big credit card bills. There is conscious consumption. There’s re-prioritizing and it’s widespread," she said.

Covid is akin to a social experiment taking place. In some ways, it will bring about permanent shifts in consumer behaviour.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pre-ssing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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