Shifting consumer expectations could be a challenge post-COVID


The pandemic ushered in technological, social and economic change for most Canadians, but did it change trends?

“(It’s) simply an acceleration of trends we were already seeing, it’s not going to fundamentally transform our world,” said David Coletto, Abacus Data CEO at the annual meeting of Farm and Food Care Ontario. “But, perhaps, fast-forward us four or five years into the future than where we would otherwise be.”

Why it matters: Shifting consumer trends can have an effect on farm-produced food.

As a pollster, Coletto’s job is to interpret trends from the public. Before the pandemic hit, he focused on generational change and how new generations, such as Millennials and Generation Z, interacted with changes in the world, like technology.

An Abacus Data September survey of Canadians revealed 83 per cent believe the pandemic has changed how we will work and how the economy will run after it’s over. 

He said the touchless experience would grow because consumers have embraced the technology and the convenience. The real question will be, will 2020 reflect the Roaring 20s of the post-First World War and Spanish Flu 1920s era or the snoring 20s?

“Whichever one of those we end up doing will have big implications for the food sector and this immense demand that people are going to have for experiences out of home,” he said. 

“Whether that’s travel, whether that’s foodservice and restaurants, or other kinds of things that we’ve been prevented from doing going forward.”

Coletto said 74 per cent of Canadians believe the pandemic focused them on their health and wellbeing both physically and mentally, and they appreciate how simple their lives have become. 

“That will be one of the lasting legacies and obviously food, what we eat to fuel ourselves to find delight and comfort is a big part of that,” he said. “Sixty-five per cent say their behaviours and preferences for shopping and services like grocery have changed. Shopping for food isn’t as fun as it used to be.”

While Covid-19 has crippled the hospitality sector, it has increased Canadians’ interest and passion for cooking at home and building a deeper relationship to food than before, which may have a lasting effect on the foodservice industry, but remain a boon for retail grocers, farmers’ markets and those who produce food.  

Millennials and Gen Z give a higher level of attention and value to food compared to any other previous generation, said Coletto. 

With that focus comes the responsibility of the agriculture sector to answer questions people have around sustainability, regeneration, animal welfare and climate change or carbon footprint mitigation. 

While consumer use of online purchasing for groceries and other supplies has increased during the pandemic, it runs contrary to their concerns around climate change and lowering their carbon footprint. 

The caveat to all the data is consumers often say one thing, or want a certain outcome, but tend to behave and act opposite to those desires. 

“Whenever there’s a problem like that (climate change) there’s a business solution that somebody is going to offer to differentiate,” Coletto said. “I suspect that big e-commerce retailers like Amazon, Walmart, are going to be under a lot of pressure to reduce, the amount of packaging and waste they produce.”

It extends to the desire to support and eat locally, even though consumers can’t always afford it or chose it when they wish. 

“A lot of our behavioural change is not driven by good intentions, sometimes it’s driven by negative incentives,” he said.

A survey around meatless alternatives Abacus Data performed approximately two years ago revealed one in five Millennials in Canada had been shamed at some point for eating meat. 

“People’s behaviour is more likely to change when you’re going to feel embarrassed or judged by decisions that you’re making,” Coletto said. “That’s where I see both the opportunity and the risk around climate change.”

As more consumers become aware of it, even if they don’t deeply care about it, they’ll feel that they’re going to be judged if they aren’t making wise, climate-friendly choices, he said. 

The challenge will be constantly educating about how do we possibly feed the world in a way that doesn’t have a major impact. Finding that balance is going to be important, but it has to be authentic to explain to consumers what it takes to reduce the volume of food we need to produce to be self-sufficient and feed others without too big of an impact on farming. 

“Activists and environmentalists will never cede the ground will never give you credit for that, but most people are in the middle, and they’re quite reasonable,” he said. “It means you’ve got to be just honest and real with people…to get them to that place.”

Coletto said, overall, farmers top the list for being trusted and appreciated, and people believe the sector is moving in the right direction because it doesn’t resist change.