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Coronavirus pandemic likely to permanently change dining habits of Asian consumers, Nielsen study says

Asian consumers are expected to eat less out and more at home as COVID-19 changes attitudes and behaviors of consumers, finds Nielsen study.

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Asian consumers are unlikely to go back to their old habits of frequently dining out, and will instead prefer takeaway and eating at home once life goes back to normal after the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study.

“Consumer across Asia have signaled their eating habits may change permanently once the world moves beyond the impact of the novel coronavirus,” an online survey by market researcher Nielsen found. Over 6,000 respondents in 11 markets—mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia—were polled between March 6 and 17.

In mainland China, 86% of those polled said they would eat at home more often than before the outbreak, followed by 77% in Hong Kong. In South Korea, Malaysia, and Vietnam, that number stood at 62%.

The survey underscores the changing retail landscape, particularly for the food and drinks segment, as businesses grapple with the new normal of social distancing drilled into the public’s psyche to stem the spread of COVID-19. The highly contagious disease has affected over 1.2 million people across the globe and claimed at least 64,000 lives so far.

“The COVID-19 crisis has certainly changed attitudes and behaviors of consumers,” said Vaughan Ryan, managing director for Southeast Asia at Nielsen Connect. “I don’t believe people will fully stop eating out of the home, but clearly the virus impact will last for quite some time and we do expect consumers to continue to eat ‘more’ at home for the foreseeable future.”

“But whilst consumer behavior across markets in the immediate terms has definitely changed, the subsequent question is ‘When will it return to normal?’ The answer may well be never,” Ryan said.

The trend in many of the Asian markets that were included in the survey shows that sales of fast-moving consumer goods has on average risen by at least 20% every week since the outbreak began spreading in late January.

Ryan said that this shows consumer behavior has moved from “on-the-go lifestyle” to a more “safe in-home consumption” trend.

This growth in home cooking can be seen in the growing user base of Hong Kong-based DayDayCook. The multimedia cooking platform’s active monthly users in China grew by more than half in March from January, while community post users also grew at the same rate.

“Since the onset of COVID-19, there have been significant changes in the food shopping patterns of consumers across different regions,” said Norma Chu, founder of DayDayCook.

She noted that on Tmall, consumers had drastically cut down purchases of some non-essential foods, such as snacks, nuts, and special regional foods, from 73.38% to 21.98% of their purchases. On the other hand, purchases of essential food items, such as noodles, rice, oils, Chinese dried goods, and seasonings, had increased significantly from 26.3% before the outbreak to 67.69% currently.

Deepika Chandrasekar, research analyst at Euromonitor International, said that in Singapore, restaurants were feeling the impact of the measures rolled out to contain the virus.

“It is likely that restaurants are seeing lower footfall while eating at home starts to increase,” she said, adding that even though online orders of food have been rising, most of the city’s restaurants make their revenue from dine-ins.

Jack Chuang, partner at OC&C Strategy Consultants, said that as people increasingly dine at home, restaurants should rationalize their store portfolio.

His colleague Veronica Wang added that retailers should also rethink the role of their physical stores, and what the implications are in terms of the store location, format, offerings, and service.

“Social distancing will lead to new, innovative ways of consumer engagement, which I believe will stay as a trend even after COVID-19,” said Wang, adding that livestreaming has played a bigger role in both engaging consumers as well as selling products.

Although social distancing will become the new normal for the foreseeable future, dining and eating together are not entirely going to disappear.

“Dining and eating together serves to also provide social interactions,” said Tuan Phan, associate professor of marketing, innovation, and information management at Hong Kong University.

This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post.