A global lockdown might make weeks feel like months and months weigh like centuries, but business allows little room for ennui. As distracting as the daily inundation of the negative can be, the time to look forward is always now. In this feature, Informa Health and Nutrition sister properties provide that right-now-right-here update. Look for the Industry Health Monitor every other Friday to learn the major news that is affecting the natural products market immediately and the less obvious insights that could dictate where the market may struggle or thrive in the months to come.
Consider this: Consumers are paying attention
Among the many ways the COVID-19 pandemic has upended attitudes and intentions is the way it has turned working conditions into a domestic concern. We’re still worried about fair trade issues at the international level, but with COVID-19 putting grocery store clerks, meat packers and other frontline workers at risk right down the street, how workers are treated may be more important to consumers than ever.
New Hope Network’s new consumer research shows this is especially true for grocery store shoppers. Nearly two-thirds of them, 65%, agreed stores should pay their employees more than minimum wage. A far smaller number, 20%, said they believe that maximizing profit for investors is more important.
A whopping 75% of consumers agreed that stores should “go above and beyond minimum requirements.” Only 15% indicated the minimum legal requirements were adequate.
None of this should be surprising. Outside of Ayn Rand acoyltes, most people probably wish better health and fortune for their fellow citizens and hope that the system provides both. But what’s troubling in these findings is that only 23% of respondents said they have actively researched how retailers treat their employees.
All of this leaves many retailers, particularly small independents, facing a quandary. Moving pay above minimum wage can be tremendously challenging in small retail environments where margins are famously small. Retailers of any size may also find it difficult to illustrate that their workers are treated better than “minimum requirements” when customers don’t understand what those minimum requirements are.
But where COVID-19 presents challenges, it also presents opportunities.
People are paying attention. Changes made now may have a greater chance of becoming part of a brand or retailer’s story in the long term. Conversely, chains that have walked back “hazard pay” incentives could face a backlash. In Portland, Maine, Whole Foods Market workers have gone to court asking the chain to reinstate hazard pay.
Everything adds up. Not every store is going to hit every box on the checklist for worker pay, benefits and workplace conditions, but every store can talk about what they are doing. Plexiglass barriers at checkout counters are hard to miss, but what other health and safety measure are being taken that need to be explained? That only 23% of consumers have actively researched how retailers treat their employees suggests that there is a lot of white space for messaging. Do what you can, and explain what you do.
Retailers should also keep in mind that what consumers think about working conditions and pay—and how often they think about it—is likely to change. Widespread lockdown measures are returning in many areas as the case counts and death toll climb. There had been a sense of normalization over the summer and into the fall, but awareness of risks faced by retail workers should be expected to rise. Those yard signs thanking frontline workers may return.
For all of this, the swing in terms of how many customers seek out or avoid a retailer based on worker pay or conditions may be small. But in a time when consumers are paying close attention and keeping score, small stakes could be high stakes.
Know this: Investors are paying attention, too
Consumer behavior indexes measure dramatic shifts in consumer behaviors as we march through COVID that is compared to a 2017 “normal” benchmark before COVID-19 emerged. These indexes are assessed through monthly surveys of how consumers perceive their shopping behaviors.
The natural products industry engagement index measures dramatic shifts in social and mass media engagement—of the top 50 trends shaping the natural products industry—as we march through COVID-19 that is compared to a Q4 2019 “normal” benchmark before COVID-19 emerged. The index assesses weekly keyword engagement of these top trends.
The natural products industry investment index measures dramatic shifts in investment activity as we march through COVID-19 that is compared to a 2019 “normal” benchmark before COVID-19 emerged. Nutrition Capital Network monitors monthly financial activity in the natural products industry.
Leave it to The New Yorker to capture the zeitgeist dead on.