Fear is driving consumer shopping behaviour

by Antonio Petra. Most shopping experiences seem all about the store entrance as a magical boundary protecting a Covid-free wonderland that doesn’t need to be controlled or policed.

by Antonio Petra. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I came across a piece of research which struck a cord with me. It has become more relevant as we have progressed through the various stages of our lockdown. The insight was that consumers will expect retailers to deliver hygiene-led shopping experiences: “Fears around hygiene and social distancing during the pandemic have prompted people to expect stringent safety measures across their shopping experiences. Whether buying in-store and online, there’s a demand for retailers to deliver innovative solutions that make them feel secure without impeding their usual routines,” reported the Canvas8 Shopping Sector overview.

There is an important word in that statement: ‘fear’. Fear is driving this need, a very real fear for most people. There are very important implications when dealing with an emotion like fear, specifically because it is a fight or flight response – a response based on a protective instinct and completely emotional, not a rational response (Source: Cisler, J.M.; Olatunji, B.O.; Lohr, J.M.; Williams, N.L. Cognition and Emotion, 2009) Many customers have a heightened need for safety right now, whether they voice it or not. And, if you as a retailer do not address this, they will have an emotional aversion to using your service or entering your store, regardless of your marketing or pricing.

If you think I’m being dramatic, consider this: as basic emotions, fear and disgust are both processed in our ‘lizard/fast brain’ and therefore often have a synergic relationship. Think of it this way, do you really want to be triggering the disgust emotion in your customers? It doesn’t matter how big your marketing spend is, it’s common sense that it’s going to be pretty expensive to buy your way out of the fear/revulsion category of consumer product response. As retailers move further into ‘normal’ operations, this is an incredibly important aspect of the shopping experience to consider. You need to address it seriously because there are serious implications for your business if you do not, particularly given the financial strain most consumers are under.


Simply checking the government ordained check list retailers need to comply with in order to operate, won’t cut it. You need to go the extra mile in providing a shopping experience that is so safe that it actually creates a sense of comfort for the consumer. This extends beyond mandatory checks before entering a store, to the experience in the store itself. Most shopping experiences I have had thus far seem to operate on the premise that the entrance is a magical boundary. That with the blessing of a tired hand spritz and maybe a cursory temperature check, I am entering a Covid-free wonderland that doesn’t need to be controlled or policed, beyond stickers in the queuing line.

The reality is, based on my experience as a consumer in these stores, navigating this environment is a harrowing and uncomfortable experience. Stores have been designed to maximise meterage for product and not social distancing. Employees have been taught to respect customers, which means they feel uncomfortable telling customers to social distance and wear masks properly. So too with instore security, which seems to have the mandate to police for potential crime but not safety guidelines.

Then, there is the equally important statement that ‘taking extra care’, makes about you as a retailer. It speaks to how much you care about your staff. Not empowering them to take action against irresponsible shoppers or making the physical environment as safe as it can be is, quite frankly, unforgivable considering the vulnerable economic position of most retail staff. We are close to passing even the most conservative estimates of building of new habits. The reality is that we have moved beyond a point in this crisis where things will magically reset and return to normal one day. As our world normalises around the new economic hardship and heightened awareness to hygiene, retailers need to formalise their response to this new consumer need.


Antonio Petra is FCB and Hellocomputer Joburg’s Group Executive of Strategy, Data and Insight. He has over 20 years’ experience in the digital environment, and is an internationallly recognised specialist in marketing strategy, data, and analytics. His strategies are used on a daily basis to grow brands online businesses, increase revenue, improve ROI, and develop more intimate customer relationships. 


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