Polarization in times of quarantine: which way will the consumer’s behaviour go?

10 Jun 2020


Home-quarantine, self-isolation, lockdowns and other types of social distancing have been put in place in virtually every nation around the world. People are recommended, told or obliged to stay in their homes. In a matter of weeks, the global epidemic has transformed human behaviour and impacted social relations. 

The phenomenon of polarization

The phenomenon of polarization, the division into two sharply contrasting groups, is boosted in times of crisis1, be it on a financial or political level. The same is valid for the current corona crisis.
The New York Times² predicts a rise of ‘Covidivorces’ based on the skyrocketed Chinese divorce rates now the crisis has eased. At the same time and in the other extreme, the newspaper expects a wave of “coronababies” and a new generation of “quaranteens” in 2033.

Another major polarization that is visible during today’s crisis is the “fit or fat” one. As nearly all social activities have been erased from the agenda, people are left with lots of spare time. One way to spent this free time is to binge-eat whilst binge-watching series and movies. Netflix, YouTube and other online entertainment providers have seen a rise in usage to the level that they decided to reduce streaming quality for at least the next month to prevent the internet collapsing under the strain of unprecedented usage due to the coronavirus pandemic3.
On the other side, sales of indoor fitness equipment have gone through the roof. Delays in deliveries of these product have been reported at both generic online retailers as specialized sporting goods retailers. In countries such as Belgium where going outdoors for physical activities is still allowed, city parcs and forest have been reported to be overcrowded with walking, jogging or cycling people.

Remaining or becoming fit as part of a healthy lifestyle is of the upmost importance, even more so nowadays. On this topic, the World Health Organization wrote on March 23rd 2020 in an information note on Covid-19 and non-communicable diseases  “A healthy lifestyle will make all bodily functions work better, including immunity. Eating healthy diets, with plenty of fruit and vegetables, keeping physically active, quitting smoking, limiting or avoiding alcohol intake, and getting enough sleep are key components of a healthy lifestyle”.

Besides being active, following a healthy diet is part of a healthy lifestyle. The statement of FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations) is clear:  “While no foods or dietary supplements can prevent Covid-19 infection, maintaining a healthy diet is an important part of supporting a strong immune system.”.

1 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/27/world/coronavirus-lockdown-relationships.html
2 https://www.caixabankresearch.com/en/polarisation-legacy-financial-crisis-and-other-contextual-forces
3 https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/19/tech/netflix-internet-overload-eu/index.html


Already prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, consumers were taking a proactive approach by changing their diet patterns with the purpose to stay in good health and maintain a good immune system. 53% of global consumers have made changes to their diets and lifestyles in order to improve their immune system4. The most widespread dietary changes consumers have been making pre-crisis are:

  • Eating more fresh fruit and vegetables (63%)
  • Increased intake of protein (62%)
  • Reduced sugar intake (56%)
  • Increased intake of vitamins and minerals (40%)

During the crisis people changed again their food shopping habits: as expected in a time of stock-piling, they increased the purchase of pantry food options such as canned food. However, much less expected, also  plant based options such as oat milk sales (+347% PY US), meat alternatives (+206% PY US), probiotic products (kombucha sales +10% PY US) undergo a steep sale increase. On the other hand, fresh fruit and vegetable  products sale went down (apple -3% US PY, celery -19%. PY US), which could be linked to both scarcity and perishability of these.

4 http://www.fao.org/3/ca8380en/CA8380EN.pdf
5 Nielsen
6 FMCG Gurus

What about post covid-19?

How will the consumer’s shopping habits be post Covid-19? Only time will tell, but based on the learnings in the recovery of China, we expect that buying patterns adopted during the outbreak might have a lasting impact on consumers5: They may be more likely to place a new emphasis on nutritional labels to look for healthier food or to rely on the online shopping apps they discovered during this period.