Grocery Stores: The Fourth Emergency Service 

The coronavirus is shifting everything that we’ve come to consider as normal. To navigate this change now, in real time, we have tapped into our community of customers to explore what’s changing in their world: the way they shop, communicate, work and socialize.

Sophie Gaskill

Global Brand Director

Sophie Gaskill looks after C Space’s brand and marketing, having learnt the ropes at infamous brand agency, Wolff Olins. At C Space, Sophie has spearheaded many of C Space’s most innovative experiences, including “Act Don’t Act”, an immersive theatre event that brought insight to life and the very first iteration of our newspaper dedicated to insight, In Print. Sophie is interested in the power of purposeful brands, having had the privilege to be a part of Technology Will Save Us, a technology scale-up that manufactures make-it-yourself kits to empower young people’s relationship with technology. She’s also worked with big, global brands, like Pernod Ricard.

All data taken from C Space consumer tracking surveys
(March 10 – March 23)

Week 1: What’s emerging is a collective need for community and solidarity. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in grocery.


Customers share their admiration for those who are helping to keep people fed. Who knew that the sometimes-derided grocery store would come to be a lifeline for its customers, and that its staff would be seen as heroes, on a level with the emergency services’ first responders?

Selflessness in the face of this crisis is now highly prized. Yes, there have been examples of survivalist behaviors, but this situation is inspiring collectivism too. #Inittogether is trending on Twitter, we’ve seen neighborhoods of Italian people making music together across their balconies, and community volunteer networks to help those in isolation are recruiting tens of thousands of people looking to help.

At times of crisis we find emotional safety in our communities. Our disdain for hoarders, voiced loudly by our panel of consumers, signals something deeper; a fear of those who refuse to help secure our collective survival, and a fear of the risk they present.

“People buy too much and don’t think about others. It will come back to get them.”

Sarah M

Contrasting with this anti-hoarding attitude is a new admiration for organizations who are seen as providing a reliable and dependable lifeline, and particularly their front-line staff who are potentially risking their own health to make sure others can buy necessities.

Our panel of customers talk about grocery-store workers as “on the front line”. They mention them in the same breath as the doctors and nurses who are “keeping us alive”. These low-paid workers who are turning up to work and risking their own health to keep us and our families fed are “heroes”.

Grocery stores have moved from ignored necessity to fourth emergency service.


Just weeks ago customers saw the stores as, at best, just somewhere to buy the basics. While the ability to get food has always been an essential service, its ready availability has suppressed this view. But in this crisis people now appreciate that service far more. Customers are starting to focus on something very different.


“[My grocery store] started allowing senior citizens to come in early to buy supplies. For them to put senior citizens first and not think about money. I applaud them and I will support them in future. They’re thinking about their community. They’re keeping us alive.”



One point for the stores’ management to consider, though is that not only are grocery employees “on the front line,” our employee communities show that they are increasingly worried about becoming sick – it’s a very fragile link in the supply chain. Grocery brands should make sure they are taking care of their people.

This new bond between customers and their neighbourhood grocery stores could prove vital for their continued success when (and if) shopping patterns return to some kind of normality. The pivot to e-commerce is critical right now, however – even if people can go to the store, they would probably prefer to order online.

Consumers are going to be loyal to the brands that help them get through their day-to-day lives during this crisis, and will likely continue to be loyal after we make it through because those brands helped them and their families make it. One interesting message for grocers is that because they are an essential service and consumers will always need them they may not always have felt the need to be customer-first in order to beat their competition – so how do they maintain this new, positive relationship with consumers beyond the crisis?

It stands to reason that the companies that are providing essential services are disproportionately important to the lives of customers.  And while grocery stores are thriving, other discretionary spending has been far from the minds of most customers.

So another big question is: “What can other brands do to form new relationships with consumers?” Remember, two of the world’s great brands – Coca-Cola and Hershey – formed bonds with consumers that still exist today because they actively participated with the US military during World War II. And we find ourselves at war, yet again.


What is coronavirus really about for brands and consumers?

The answer is uncertainty; dealing with global volatility. The coronavirus is just the latest unexpected challenge. In a few months there could be a serious natural disaster, or a famine that affects business, for example. The question then becomes “how do you respond to that?” which demands that business asks itself more fundamental, human questions.

This could well be all about building and having foundational, meaningful relationships with your consumers so that when a crisis hits, you have the permission as a brand to be agile and flexible in the way that you need to in order to survive.

The only thing that is certain is uncertainty – meaning that you need to make sure your company is agile and adaptable. There are things you need to do internally, but how do you do that with your consumers? It all comes down to transparency, communication, and honesty in the end.


What We’re Hearing from Customers

This week, there’s been almost a 50 per cent uplift in customers who report having heard something positive about the actions brands are taking during this pandemic, demonstrating that customers are really starting to take notice, and talk about, positive action.

Most of the examples called out relate to employee or customer protection. And interestingly, customers also noted a raft of non-essential brands that are taking steps to protect the public.

  • 6 per cent report having heard of companies doing something positive regarding the coronavirus (up 49.8 per cent week-on-week). Examples customers mentioned included:
  • Taking concrete steps to avoid putting their employees at risk (flexible work policy, work from home practices, cancelling work travel, closing stores while continuing to pay employees, etc.)
  • Taking concrete steps to protect their customers from exposure (exclusive shopping times for the elderly and those with underlying health issues, providing gloves and alcohol wipes to shoppers, etc.)
  • Demonstrating good customer empathy and service (such as travel companies providing free rescheduling for cancelled flights, etc.)
  • Serving the community (providing free meals for children out of school, offering free internet to low-income families to support distance learning, employing people who have lost their jobs elsewhere, etc.)

Customers’ habits are in flux. Aside from the obvious and dramatic uptick in online shopping, they’re trying different products, shopping in different stores and taking more advantage of offers. Here are a few sample quotes from our community members:


“[This pandemic] makes you panic and want the things that you don’t have – so I am buying things I may not usually buy.”

Judy F


“My last purchase was unusual as I made it online, specifically from [online store]. I took advantage of offers that I could not miss.”

Felipe B


“I honestly wouldn’t wish the past three weeks on anybody right now. It’s really hard to find just about anything. I’ve drove to so many different stores and still have not had any luck finding what I need.”

Joe J


“I am seeking out alternative places to find food.”

Sarah M