The COVID-19 pandemic has pervaded nearly every aspect of the path to purchase and the way marketers approach shopper conversion. That makes an understanding of where and how shoppers buy their products more critical than ever as marketers respond to the rapid changes in shopping behavior that have taken place over the last six months.

Becoming nimbler and more flexible is vital because it's the pace of change, rather than the changes themselves, that has been so surprising, according to a panel of industry experts speaking at Path to Purchase Institute’s third “Community Gathering,” held virtually on Sept. 9 as part of the newly reimagined Path to Purchase Digital Expo

“There were no surprises in the [shoppers’ shift in] channels. Click-and-collect has definitely been really important for us, as has partnering with last-mile delivery vehicles, tapping into ones we hadn’t before," said Greg Kearns, global consumer engagement enablement leader for global marketing capabilities at Kimberly-Clark. “[The shift to digital] is something we thought would change over the course of five to 10 years, but it’s changed over the course of five to 10 weeks.”

The change hasn't occurred without challenges, of course. In the toilet paper category, the biggest challenge for Kimberly-Clark has been keeping up with demand through the supply chain, which required the manufacturer to work more closely with its retailer partners to adjust to a new normal.

At Promotion in Motion, the challenge has been addressing the shift to e-commerce and the spike in household penetration levels, according to Peri Mendelson, the company’s director of sales operations and analytics. The snack brand marketer (Welch’s, Sun-Maid, Toggi and Sour Jacks, to name a few brands) has seen shoppers making fewer trips but spending more on each, while also changing the venue: They’re spending more time in grocery stores, in the value channel and, of course, online, she said.

While the initial challenge at the onset of the pandemic was all about stocking up, a major issue later on was the widespread shortage in aluminum cans that occurred, which necessitated a shift of greater use of plastic and glass containers, according to Alysia Ross, director of insights, planning and shopper relations for Coca-Cola Beverages Florida, one of the manufacturer’s nearly 68 bottlers. “Can constraints have affected not only us, but our competitors, anyone who serves a product in a 12-ounce can,” Ross said, adding that the problem is expected to continue into 2021.

Another key challenge to address was the massive hit taken by Florida’s hospitality sector. With the pandemic shutting down theme parks and all but ending travel to the “tourist-centric” state, Coke Florida had to address such issues as what to do with all the custom bottles it produces for Disney World and Disneyland. “With no parks open, we’re sitting on a lot of product,” Ross said.

Pernod-Ricard USA also experienced a major spike in sales — upwards of 40-50%, said Stuart Vass, region chain manager at the adult beverages maker. While the company originally thought that might imply that consumers were drinking more during the pandemic, it ultimately learned that “With the on-premise bars closing, consumers were still drinking around the same amount, but they were shifting from the bar space to the off-premise.”

As summer arrived and restaurant patios started to open up around the nation, Pernod-Ricard saw its retail sales growth drop to single digits. Now, “I'm wondering what's going to happen as the weather starts to change [patio dining shuts down], since we don't have a current solution for the on-premise,” Vass said. “Does that mean that shoppers come back? And does that help not only our business, but anybody in the cross-merchandising space like a salty snack or frozen pizzas?”

Sharing Best Practices
More than ever, marketers must be omni-focused without losing sight of the importance of brick-and-mortar, according to Mendelson. “The overarching message for a brand or product has to resonate” across channels, tailored to the specific platform but carrying the same themes and emotions, she said.

Coke Florida “wholeheartedly” embraced the digital space like never before, moving more of its marketing activity online to target shoppers where they are, said Ross, pointing to digital coupons and the growing number of retailer media networks as key areas. It also has altered its messaging and customized marketing more at the retailer-level, she said.

The company’s advertising has also become less functional and more emotional. “A big difference in the way that we’re closing the sale [now versus before the pandemic] is appealing to relevance. We are fortunate to have iconic brands that are memory makers,” she explained. So the message has “become more about finding that relevance in everyday life.”

Similarly, Pernod-Ricard initially started with a push through general consumer platforms such as Ibotta but has gotten more retailer-specific, shifting some of its focus to retailer-specific digital coupon platforms like Target’s Circle. For the spirits manufacturer, it’s been interesting to make these shifts because it normally relies so heavily on in-store marketing — particularly sampling.

As one example, for Cinco De Mayo this year, Pernod-Ricard had to quickly convert all of its planned in-store tequila tastings to virtual “Paloma Parties” that featured a social media contest with help from marketing agency GT Universe.

But with so much continuing to change and so much uncertainty still ahead, it’s important for brands to maintain the nimbleness and flexibility they’ve exhibited — while being prepared for the likelihood that some of these changes in shopper behavior are here to stay.

Registered Path to Purchase Digital Expo attendees can watch the panel discussion on demand. The next Community Gathering, to be held on Wednesday, Sept. 30, will examine the steps brands and retailers should take to build a truly Omnichannel Experience. That discussion will feature Tracy Frisbie of BuzzBallz/Southern Champion, Cheryl Pinkham of Ahold Delhaize’s Food Lion, and Deb Hannah of Shoe Carnival.

For more information about the full Path to Purchase Digital Expo and to register for the event, visit experiencep2px.com.