Survey elucidates packaging preferences of consumers in pandemic

A consumer survey undertaken by information services company GlobalData sheds light on the changing packaging preferences of consumers and the need for safety without compromising on sustainable packaging.

15 Oct 2020 | By Aultrin Vijay

A recent report, COVID-19 Consumer Survey Insights: Trends in Consumer Spending – Weeks 1-10 – published by GlobalData was shared by Christopher Victor, the director of Consumer Insights, GlobalData, during a presentation at ProPak India virtual expo on 14 October. 

The report based on a consumer survey states that the Covid-19 pandemic has shifted consumer attitudes over the short-term. Momentum for sustainability has been disrupted as people prioritise safe and sterile packaging.

According to the report, due to fears of infection, supermarkets have increased the use of single-use materials to wrap products such as fruit and vegetables. Plastics have shown hygiene qualities that more sustainable forms of packaging lack.

The survey report, which was compiled by George Henry, associate analyst at GlobalData’s Consumer Division, sheds light on how plastic packaging has demonstrated its functionality, but at the same time how it is being detrimental to the environment. “It is essential that brands work towards catering for both safety and sustainability,” the report stated.

Concerns about safety of product packaging
The report, however, stated that most consumers are concerned about the safety of product packaging even as lockdowns have started to ease worldwide.

According to GlobalData’s Covid-19 recovery consumer survey – Week 1, the majority (52%) of global consumers agree with concerns about product packaging. Of the 11 countries surveyed, 84% of Chinese respondents agree with concerns about the safety of product packaging. This may be due to its origin of Covid-19, that has left consumers feeling risk averse after the early and rapid transmission rate.

This is followed by 75% of Indian and 71% of Brazilian consumers that feel the same way. This suggests that those living in developing economies are most concerned about the risk of infection.

The report suggested that packaging concerns can be assuaged by proactive communication throughout the supply chain from the manufacturer to the end consumer. The various stakeholders should express the actions they are taking to secure safe packaging.

“During the past few months, single-use materials such as cartonboard have surged in popularity. In the long-term, there will be opportunities to foster deeper collaboration between packaging that boast both sustainable and hygienic qualities,” it stated.

However, the report revealed that consumers in developing nations are most concerned about the safety of product packaging. It also found that changes in consumer spending will lead to a diminished short-term focus on sustainability.

Changes in packaging demand
Adaptions in consumer behavior are leading to changes in packaging demand, the report found. The report identified that over a third (35%) of global consumers will order grocery deliveries from online meal delivery services more often than before. This is a marked change in behaviour that suggests convenience and reduced shopping occasions holds appeal.

These are signs that a sizable proportion of consumers has reassessed their preference for ‘packaging free’ consumption. As hygiene and safety features more prominently in consumer consciousness, single use plastic bags may be regarded as a necessary short-term compromise.

Around 31% of global consumers agree they will purchase “on the go” food and drink more often than before. This sentiment is particularly prominent amongst 51% of Indian, and 49% of Chinese consumers.

Case in point, some UK-based quick-service restaurants have introduced click and collect and deliveries that point to shifting consumer behaviour. This suggests less reusable plastic, with some foodservice chains halting the use of personal cups to minimise the risk of contamination. Low oil prices may also encourage an increase in the use of virgin plastic, to the detriment of recycled material.

Lack of recycling impacts sustainability
Concerns about virus transmission have led supermarkets to increase their use of single-use materials to wrap products. Since people are eating at home rather than in food service outlets, there will be certainly be an increase in packaging waste in the household. This is compounded by the closure of retail stores, resulting in the non-collection of their generally higher quality materials.

With household recycling levels still relatively low, concerns remain about how effectively this waste will be sorted and recycled, the report found. The reduction of high-quality retail cardboard, paper, glass, metal cans, and plastics packaging available for collection has led to a shortfall of quality material needed for supply chains.

The report also found that standard packaging including cardboard, glass and plastic have seen an uptake compared with those considered to be more sustainable; such as plant-based materials. This is largely due to scale and fast production turnarounds.

However, according to the report, in times of crisis, consumers tend to simplify what they eat. As a result, staple foods such as bread become a popular commodity for stockpiling. However, bread is the second most wasted food item in the UK, and exposes how food waste is an overlooked driver of environmental damage and climate change.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, panic-buying and stockpiling has led to significant amounts of wastage. Yet half of global consumers agree that they prefer sealed/packaged foods rather than freshly prepared alternatives. This identifies the conflict between consumers’ desires for sustainability, compromised by the immediate demands for quick access to restocked food and drink.

The report also revealed that Indian consumers are more than twice as likely to make plastic-free packaging their top priority when compared to the global average.

According to the report, almost a third (32%) of Indian consumers regard plastic-free packaging as their top priority. This is significantly more than any other country. “Such a disparity in attitudes may be due to long-held plans for sustainability, backed by tangible action. eCommerce giant, Amazon, announced its aim to eliminate single-use plastic from its supply chain by June 2020. Paper cushion, an environment-friendly and fully-recyclable packaging solution, has now replaced plastic dunnage across all its fulfilment centres in India.

Consumers prioritise tamper-proof packaging
Almost half (47%) of global consumers view “secure and tamper=proof sealed packaging” as their top priority or significantly more important than before. This is particularly evident in South Africa, where 64% of consumers now share this sentiment.

The report also found that millennials and Gen X are most likely to prioritise these qualities, though all generation groups place a relatively high level of value on secure and tamper- proof sealed packaging.

In comprison, 40% of global consumers regard recyclable/reusable packaging as significantly more important than before, or their top priority. This sentiment is led by 59% of Indian consumers. This suggests that consumers are seeking short-term answers to the Covid-19 pandemic, preferring product packaging that has immediately tangible functions to counter the risk of transmission.

Meanwhile, 45% of millennials are most likely to consider recyclable/reusable packaging significantly more important than before, or their top priority. This is the highest of all generational groups. This sentiment is most strongly held by younger consumers, and decreases in importance with increasing age.

Importance for secure packaging is universal
Due to fears of virus transmission, consumers expect safer food handling throughout the supply chain. Customers seek peace-of-mind when receiving food from restaurants, and tamper-proof labels can help mitigate these apprehensions by proving their order has not been touched after leaving the restaurant premises.

According to the report, 74% of global consumers believe ethical/sustainable methods are slightly/significantly more important than before, and their top priority. In spite of the pandemic prioritising immediate attention on hygiene, consumers still desire brand leadership that shows tangible efforts to adopt sustainability.

The report found that some foodservice chains have stopped the use of personal cups because of the risk of transmission. This can lead to a slowdown in other re-use initiatives. It also said that on-the-go consumption encourages single-use material, but brands must devise compromises that support sustainable practices.

The GlobalData report was compiled with balanced geographical coverage to account for countries at varying stages of the Covid-19 outbreak around the world. The respondents in the survey, which was conducted online, were aged over 16 years.

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