KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Two Western Michigan University marketing researchers are at the forefront of understanding how a pandemic like the novel coronavirus affects food consumption behavior, with the hope that their findings can help communities and companies in emergency management efforts.
Dr. Ann Veeck, professor and acting chair in the Department of Marketing, and Dr. Hu Xie, assistant professor of marketing, conducted a survey in China from Feb. 15 to Feb. 23, as the COVID-19 virus was rapidly spreading in several regions. With government guidance that people should leave their homes as little as possible, Veeck and Xie, who was the lead researcher on the project, examined food shopping, preparation and consumption behavior, and the coping mechanisms people use during a widespread, deadly epidemic.
With the help of Chinese colleagues and support from the Haworth College of Business Food Industry Research and Education Center, the researchers conducted an online household survey, which included questions related to coping strategies, emotions, knowledge of the coronavirus, health management, demographics and food-related activities. Questions were both closed-ended—rating scales and multiple choice—and open-ended. To allow geographical comparisons, responses were gathered from throughout China, with four areas deliberately oversampled: Beijing, and Jilin, Fujian, and Hubei Provinces. Ultimately, over 1,000 households completed the survey, including more than 150 from Hubei Province, site of the initial outbreak of COVID-19.
While results are being tabulated with advanced analysis yet to come, Veeck and Xie have preliminary findings that have immediate relevance.
- People increased online ordering and delivery of food, with some respondents reporting that they ordered food online for the first time, citing the importance of avoiding human contact as much as possible.
- Preferred sources for online delivery of food included a combination of local, national and international providers. Some respondents reported that the largest online retailers, such as TMall.com and JD.com, had shortages of important products. Some local entrepreneurs filled gaps, often using China’s popular social media tool, WeChat, to communicate the availability of products. A 44-year-old man from Fujian Province commented, “Before, we mainly bought vegetables and fruits at the market in person. Since the epidemic, we have been buying them through local online businesses.”
- People who continued leaving their homes to buy food and other household products often increased time between trips and bought large orders of food at one time. A 39-year-old woman from Beijing commented, “Basically, I just drive directly to a large supermarket to buy food and then go home quickly. I won't stay too long … ”
- 58.6% of households reported stocking up on food and beverages. Frequently noted choices were rice, flour, instant noodles, frozen dumplings and bottled water.
- Many people reported increasing the perceived healthiness of their diet to increase immunity. A 33-year-old woman from Hubei Province said, “We’re eating healthier food with fewer snacks because we want to stay healthy. Plus, snacks are difficult to buy.” Interestingly, people who perceived that they had control over their health were more likely to claim to be increasing their consumption of healthy foods, while people who felt health is largely due to luck were more likely to report increasing the consumption of junk food, snacks and alcohol.
Veeck and Xie’s findings provide important takeaways for manufacturers and retailers during an epidemic.
- The types of goods that are in demand are largely predictable--pasta, canned and frozen foods, cleaning products and paper goods. Manufacturers should have plans in place to increase production and supply of these goods in emergencies.
- Retailers should rearrange their stores to allow people to quickly select the goods that are most in demand and then pay and leave quickly to decrease human contact.
- Retailers, both local and international, should be prepared to create and communicate the availability of flexible delivery systems that can accommodate dynamic local situations. The WMU study found that in many cases smaller, local entrepreneurs have been best able to accommodate household needs in China.
Veeck and Xie will be following up on their findings in future investigations, addressing key questions such as:
- How enduring are the market alternatives for ordering and delivering food that emerge during an emergency?
- Are consumers’ food provisioning and consumption preferences permanently changed?
- Does the food hoarding that emerges in an emergency continue when normalcy returns?
- What types of food consumption behavior increase individuals’ sense of control in an epidemic?
- How does food consumption behavior impact or interact with attitudes such as hopefulness, fear and despair?
“With widespread epidemics like this one, and others, there are severe health, economic and social consequences, so this research is highly applicable,” says Veeck. “Many experts believe that similar pandemics are inevitable in the future. Long-term, the results from the study have the potential to assist public policy officials and health authorities, as well as manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers in anticipating how consumers will react in epidemics, allowing improved preparation for subsequent events.”
For many, food is not only necessary for survival but also a source of comfort. Xie looks forward to exploring that dimension in future research. “This study may shed light on the psychological motivations for food consumption during an epidemic and what coping strategies best allow consumers to adapt to new conditions in a crisis. As the other countries face similar situations with COVID-19 spread, we hope our ongoing research will aid decision makers in understanding and addressing critical needs.”
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