Asia’s Eating Habits Are Changing Post Covid-19

Consumers across Asia have signaled their eating habits may change permanently once the world moves beyond the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Only Japanese consumers say they are less likely to change their eating habits as a result of the global pandemic, an exclusive Nielsen study of 11 Asian markets reveals. 

Consumers in mainland China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, and Vietnam will rethink and re-prioritize the place eating at home has in their lives. In the Chinese mainland, 86% said they would eat at home more often than before the outbreak. In other markets, a similar trend was observed with 77% of consumers in Hong Kong planning to eat at home more often than before the event, and in South Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam, that number was 62%, respectively.

The study found a high demand for more takeaway food and home deliveries of food, particularly in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Thailand. These markets epitomize “on-the-go” lifestyles and value the convenience food to go brings. 

The implications this will have on restaurants and other out-of-home businesses are clear, but the findings will also affect the way retailers stock their stores to meet these emerging new levels of demand.

The food landscape in Asia has been an incubator of innovation and change over the last five years. As consumer lifestyles have become more densely urbanized, busier and more connected, the rise of food delivery and on-the-go consumption has dramatically changed traditional food consumption and eating experiences. But as the coronavirus situation has evolved, where and how consumers are eating has changed, with more choosing to purchase goods to eat at home.

“In a number of Asian markets, sales are regularly exceeding 20-25% of the average weekly sales across FMCG every week since the end of January. Consumers have been back to the same store multiple times, so this behavior is beyond panic buying. There is no doubt consumers have moved away from an ‘on-the-go lifestyle’ to more of a ‘safe in-home consumption’ trend,” said Vaughan Ryan, managing director Southeast Asia, Nielsen. 

Ryan also noted that the trend appeared to be playing out differently across the region but that these behaviors were quickly becoming the new norm. “The initial assumption was that consumers were panic buying, but we have seen this behavior now in markets for more than two months. If we think about Singapore as a country that already embraces home delivery of meals and Japan as one that has been less inclined, we’re seeing many more countries move closer to Singaporean habits than before,” said Ryan.

The shifts away from out-of-home dining to at-home food delivery, takeaways and cooking during the COVID-19 period are locally nuanced by traditional consumption habits but also by the different quarantine and shutdown measures by market. For example, the Japanese have hardly increased ordering food delivery while Thailand has leaned heavily on this channel. This will be crucial for organizations seeking to navigate the short term to recognize. 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, Nilsen analyst says. 

Given the unique circumstances of this experience for consumers, there are several indicators in the data that suggest a more permanent transformation as Ryan points out: “Consumer thinking and actions have been reoriented, and this will have long-term consequences. For many, old habits like eating out may forever be replaced by new habits, more apt to new, altered environments. Not only will consumers reassess where they’re eating, but they will also be far more cognizant of what they’re eating.” 

For many consumers used to eating on-the-go, home cooking may be a new concept or habit, and they will need help to adjust to this new world.

As Chinese mainland returns from quarantine conditions, another Nielsen research study from there, Nielsen Social Intelligence Survey on Coronavirus, shows they are emerging with more of a “homebody” mindset, where health and technology are factors that will influence consumer spending and shopping habits in the short and longer-term. If Chinese mainland is viewed as an example of how consumer response plays out as the pandemic progresses, it is possible that many other markets may face the need to pivot short-term observations into longer-term strategies. 

In Chinese mainland, nearly 70% of the respondents purchased daily necessities/fresh products more than twice a week. Home quarantine further cultivated consumers’ online shopping habits, with 89% of consumers saying they will be more willing to buy daily necessities/fresh products online once the pandemic is over. Additionally, 80% said they would pay attention to eating healthy even after the epidemic is over.

This showcases that even after life returns to normal post COVID-19, healthy eating may register higher on consumers’ radars than in the past. In-home eating experiences have been reset. 

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