The COVID-19 virus outbreak has sent the world into a state of worry and uncertainty. As the coronavirus spreads, the repercussions include social distancing, severe travel restrictions, the stockpiling of long-lasting home and pantry goods, and an unprecedented level of anxiety among individuals, companies and countries.

The World Health Organization (WHO) officially labelled COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11, 2020, as nearly 120,000 cases had been confirmed in over 110 countries around the world at that point, with over 4,000 deaths and still no indication of a cure in sight.

As the numbers continue to rise, this global health threat has united our concerns but divided our strategizing. Consumers are losing sight of who to turn to for comfort and brands are attempting to lay out contingency plans that put people ahead of profit during these panic-driven times.

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Empty shelves in an East London Sainsbury's. Taken on 11 March 2020

Consumers are feeling fearful

Despite an unsettled political, economic and environmental climate, the turn of the decade saw many people feeling optimistic about what the 2020s could offer, but this has been quickly quashed by the impact of COVID-19.

Ellen Peters, director of the Center for Science Communication Research at the University of Oregon, has launched a study to track people’s perceptions of risk and reactions in connection to news on the coronavirus. The study shows that American responses include feelings of worry, fear, sadness and some anger. People tend to “think their way through risk and feel their way through risk,” Peters tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. “In the case of the coronavirus, people are scared of what is happening and they use their fear as an indication of how bad a situation is, ignoring probability; this is what we call ‘probability neglect’.”

Stockpiling pandemic provisions

Consumers, driven by fear, are taking extreme measures. Panic buying across the world has left supermarket shelves empty. Earlier this week, UK and US retailers started enforcing temporary caps on certain items, such as hand sanitizers and tinned foods. Consumers are already stockpiling cleaning products, health protection goods (medical masks and thermometers), and food.

A February 2020 Nielsen survey showed that US consumers were rapidly stocking up to fill their “pandemic pantries” with provisions that have a long shelf life. The survey measured sales within a one-week period ending on February 22 and showed that sales of oat milk had increased by 306%, fruit snacks were up by 13%, dried beans and energy beverages were up 10%, and water was up 5%. In addition, said frozen food sales rose 200% year-on-year last week.

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Whole Foods at 214 3rd street in Brooklyn. Taken on 12 March 2020
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“Panic buying becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Karan Girotra, professor of operations, technology and innovation at Cornell Tech, told Eater. “A lot of people think that stores will run out, and then they do run out. Irrational behavior, rumors, misinformation can create short-term logistical issues.”

The right communication at these times is key. Peters suggests that “evidence-based communication techniques can help people bring the numbers back into the picture,” as well as acknowledging cases of people not affected by the virus in at-risk areas and publicizing survival rates rather than focusing on negative numbers.

Small business precipice and promise

“Small businesses are on the front line of this crisis,” Amanda Ballantyne, executive director of Main Street Alliance, a public policy group for small businesses, told the New York Times. “The impact on consumer demand can really impact the economy, so we think there’s an urgent need to get planning to local businesses.”

As supermarket shelves empty across cities where consumers are grappling with fear, convenience stores are seeing a spillover. But as non-essential purchases drop off, many small businesses whose goods don’t relate directly to COVID-19 are seeking loans.

The Trump administration has announced $50 billion in aid to small businesses as a coronavirus relief effort. San Francisco is also creating a relief fund for small businesses. The Small Business Association (SBA) is offering $2 million in loans to help offset the decrease in purchasing.

Amazon's Seattle Campus

Companies are also banding together to shore up communities and local workers. Amazon has established a $5 million fund to offset the sales that Seattle businesses have lost in the wake of the online retail giant’s work-from-home decree for employees in the city, which will be in effect until the end of March. Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Postmates and Instacart are in talks to create a joint fund for gig workers impacted by the pandemic.

While small businesses are bearing the brunt of economic instability, big business is not immune; airlines are in crisis as the industry faces a potential $113 billion hit.

Business as unusual

COVID-19 has laid the ground for widespread disruption and companies are starting to work nimbly to meet current consumer demands, which include an uptick in medical and cleaning products as well as goods with a long shelf-life. Direct-to-consumer health company Ro started offering a free digital assessment for COVID-19 in early March. Where possible, brands are maximizing on areas in-demand.

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Foxconn switching to producing face masks as demands rise

Currently, all new business measures appear to be short-term reactions to the pandemic. Will there be any long-term impact? George Wallace, chief executive of MHE Retail, suspects a possible impact will be a growth in anti-globalization. “The last 25 years have seen an increase in globalization and inter-dependency, a massive increase in travel and more complex supply chains in businesses,” he tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. “But there are signs of a greater preference for locally supplied goods and simpler supply chains.” As the coronavirus limits trade and travel, companies and consumers are looking at local solutions.

Businesses put people ahead of profit

“Brands that can show they are putting people or the environment ahead of sheer profit will be rewarded by consumers and employees, and enhance the way they consider the brand,” says Wallace.

Signs of companies stepping up and taking the lead with precautionary measures in the absence of a government mandate are becoming more apparent by the day. Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft have all asked Seattle-based staff to work from home, and a growing number of companies—which includes Apple and Twitter—have pledged to continue paying hourly employees whose jobs can’t be performed remotely. Coworking spaces are also starting to take measures, with the beleaguered WeWork closing five offices in the United States and over 100 locations in China. “In this situation, the companies that are the first to come out to show actions of protecting their employees, such as covering their sick pay and increasing sick leave, will get the feel-good factor from people,” says Wallace.

For more on COVID-19 read Distanced dining,” “Philanthropic brands,” “Virtual gatherings,” “Pandemic brands,” and keep an eye out for additional coverage as events unfold.

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