The Perfect Storm

Over the last two years, COVID-19 has dominated the consumer mindset. In 2022, though, the emphasis has increasingly been on the cost of living.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a perfect storm for inflation. When scarcity from supply chain disruption increased prices of goods and services, people had to spend more of their disposable income. This adds pressure to employers to increase wages, thus raising the cost of production. When attributing a labour shortage driven by consequences of the pandemic (e.g. sickness, lack of childcare), it is less surprising that inflation accelerated much more than expected in 2021.

It’s more important than ever for brands to understand their consumers and the circumstances they face. Brands across industries need to be prepared to adapt during a period of uncertainty for consumers. Here, we identify five strategies for brands to help consumers deal with a sustained period of inflation and less disposable income.

1. Food and drink: promote versatility and demonstrate values

Packaged brands and retailers have mostly benefited from consumers cooking at home, while foodservice companies are finding ways to recover from the effects of the pandemic. Rising prices along with the labour shortage are likely to prolong the foodservice struggles. 

The priority of CPG brands and retailers will likely be keeping production lines moving and products on shelves. Product versatility will need to meet the needs of consumers.

Discretionary spending on nonessentials like foodservice, alcoholic beverages, and premium products will be impacted in both directions. With prices rising across virtually every good and service: the relative accessibility of most food and drinks will trigger a lipstick effect. Conversely, brands need to keep in mind that consumer belt-tightening measures may include bulk buying, brand or channel shifts, and product attribute re-prioritisation.


2. Beauty and personal care: provide consumers with flexibility to meet their needs

While sales in the beauty industry have rebounded, the growth may be affected due to inflation and supply chain issues. Beauty and personal care categories tend to be elastic in the face of rising prices. With the abundance of products at a wide range of price points, beauty consumers are accustomed to a variety of categories in order to stay within their budget. Retailers can respond by curating a selection of products/brands across a scale of prices that serve similar purposes allowing for consumer purchase flexibility.

Product purchase justification is key when it comes to consumers making the decision on how and where to spend their dollars, especially when money might be tight. Brands need to communicate in clear terms why that product is an essential part of a beauty or grooming routine. Amplifying messaging around multi-use products will appeal to the budget-conscious user of beauty and personal care.


3. Retail: remain nimble and adjust to changing marketplace dynamics and consumer behaviour

Concerns about inflation combined with supply-chain woes, pandemic-related fears and staffing shortages all impact how and where consumers shop.

It’s likely that consumers’ willingness to spend on discretionary items will diminish while costs remain elevated. This means some categories, including apparel and beauty, will be negatively impacted before they’ve even had a chance to fully recover from the early pandemic effects.

As retailers are likely to raise prices, transparent communication will go a long way, especially if coupled with other value add offerings such as free shipping, flexible returns, and promotions. Buy now pay later offerings can help consumers better manage their money and allow them to justify spending. While these challenges have caused some retraction, retail sales continued to grow in 2021 and are projected to grow in the coming years.

Consumer behaviour

Globally prices are rising much faster than wages. Inflation began its steep ascent from pandemic lows in 2021 and wages were unable to keep up, resulting in reduced purchasing power for consumers.

Younger consumers indicate that they will purchase more using credit and take on debt to fund essential purchases in response to rising prices. This comes at a time when consumers already have record levels of debt and with rising interest rates on the horizon.

Overall, consumers will cut back on nonessential spending and will have to make difficult choices around how they spend their money. For many, that also means stretching their dollars via low-cost alternatives.

Brands can support consumers by providing creative ways to help make their money go further, such as offering discounts or opportunities to buy in bulk.

Written by Mark Miller, Director of Insights for Comperemedia and Mintel Financial Services Reports. See more Mintel Insights here.

What we think

• Learn from the past: Inflation and recession change consumer priorities and purchasing power. Brands that performed well after the last recession focused unerringly on delivering value. The key to this is showing flexibility and empathy in pricing and innovation, and convincing consumers that tangible benefits are worth the extra money.

• Prepare for uncertainty: Prices are on the rise caused by surging demand and supply chain issues following an unprecedented global pandemic. Central banks will fight inflation, which could lead either to a ‘soft landing’ or a more disruptive economic slowdown. Either way, brands need to be prepared to adapt during a period of uncertainty for consumers.

• Recognise that circumstances vary hugely: Many people will see inflation as an irritation rather than a major threat. Others are already struggling, though, and even small price changes will tip them into serious financial hardship. It’s more important than ever to understand your customers and the circumstances they face.