The changing buying behaviours of UK consumers and their response to crisis communications

Posted on March 27, 2020
4 min read


The UK government and NHS workers nationwide are asking the UK population to stay at home to stop the spread of COVID-19 and businesses are heavily experiencing the impact

Businesses in the UK, and across the globe, are facing challenges today they’ve never experienced before. So agility and adaptability are now crucial for their survival. Particularly for the food delivery industry, we’re seeing organisations take extra measures to adapt and reassure consumers, like Deliveroo, who recently announced a ‘no-contact service’

To understand the UK consumers’ thoughts and feelings during this pandemic, we asked a small group of UK-based consumers, aged 18 and up, what their reaction to the virus has been and how their buying behaviour is changing. We also asked their opinions on the crisis communications they receive from organisations—what they like or dislike, as well as advice they have for businesses. Below are some findings from this UK-based customer study.

Retailers struggle to meet the needs of adapting consumers

In our findings, every participant said they’ve tried to order groceries online to save them from leaving their home, but are unable to secure a delivery because of the growing demand for store-to-door groceries. As a result of this, consumer confidence for grocery delivery has gone down. 

Many participants noted that they don’t feel confident about selecting a delivery time too far into the future. They fear that the groceries they select today won’t be available if they wait, so they’re still going into the stores, despite their concerns about contracting or spreading the coronavirus. 

On a more positive note, one participant said that they’ve purposely increased their takeaway orders to help support local restaurants during their closure. 

We’re trying to order in as much as possible to support local businesses, as we’d normally eat out a few times a week. -Female, 25, UK

Consumers are drowning in COVID-19 marketing messages

When asked to respond to virus-related marketing messages, participants overwhelmingly agreed that the frequency is too high and that the messages were becoming more irritating than helpful. 

Expressions that stood out most amongst participants include cliche, irrelevant, doom and gloom, and salesy. 

[The messages] don’t sound very compassionate at all. They’re all pretty much the same and they’re becoming a bit of a cliche. They just sound like they’re trying to take advantage of the situation. -Male, 46, UK

On the other hand, the most successful messages, according to participants, included a community aspect. Organisations that communicate the efforts they’re making to support the vulnerable, elderly, and hard-working NHS staff proved to be most well-received. 

One participant highlighted a message from Morrisons, stating that they were impressed with their efforts to provide special food parcels to those with dietary restrictions and those struggling to get what they need. 

Morrisons has launched the basic box, where they are going to put food essentials in a box. Then those [boxes] will be delivered to those that most need them…I think that was a brilliant idea. -Female, 39, UK

Consumer advice on COVID-19 communications

At the end of the study, we asked participants to share any advice they may want organizations to consider when developing messaging. From the responses, we collated the 4 points of advice below.

1. Keep your messages customer and community-centric

Focus on how you are actually helping the customer or community. Don’t use this opportunity to promote your business as being socially responsible or promote other products to take advantage of the situation. 

2. Limit your COVID-19 messaging

Consider removing the mention of the coronavirus in messages and focus on the efforts being made to help others instead. And try to bring more positivity to your customer messages if possible. People, now more than ever, need good news and positivity to stay mentally healthy. Think more about how you can help them stay positive.

3. Show compassion

Customers need to feel that you understand what they are going through. Many of them have been impacted by the virus in some way, so a little empathy can go a long way. 

4. Be clear

This is always good advice, but especially in times of uncertainty. Be clear in your communications and use plain language. What’s the goal of your message? Is it to communicate a clear change you’re making to your business or merely to fill the silence? Be clear about what you want your customers to take away from your message. If you’re a food delivery business, for example, be clear on the food handling process to reassure consumers that they’re safe buying from you.

Empathy is key

Ultimately, there’s no rulebook for COVID-19, but with genuine human empathy, compassion, and consideration of customers’ situations and emotions, we could be on the brink of a new era of customer empathy, interaction, and trust.  

Lastly, we noted that some of the participants that took part in this study are being directly affected by the virus—either suffering themselves or unable to see loved ones who are unwell. We send our best wishes to you and thank you for your participation.

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