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Why are some store shelves empty?

Pourquoi n’y-a-t-il plus de papier toilette dans les magasins ?
Published on
20 April 2020

The current Covid-19 crisis has caused some unusual behavior in terms of consumption. As with most situations that threaten our livelihood, people have a tendency to stock up on basic goods—a fact illustrated by the rapid disappearance of certain basic goods such as toilet paper in many supermarkets! At its heart, stocking up on basic goods can be attributed to our need to feel safe in uncertain times. Recent research highlights the impact of basic human needs on consumption patterns.

"Our research is not directly related to the current crisis. We focus specifically on understanding how basic needs such as hunger or temperature can impact a consumer's choice in terms of buying sustainable goods," highlights Robert Mai, a professor in the department of marketing at Grenoble Ecole de Management, who is studying consumer behavior and automatic judgments in decision making.

Do your values go out the window when you're hungry?

On the question of how fundamental human needs guide consumer decision making, Robert and his colleagues carried out a very controlled experiment to test the impact of hunger on consumer lay beliefs about sustainable products and the consequences for purchase decisions. Two groups of participants were asked to refrain from eating for 18 hours. The first group was then fed breakfast at the lab, while the second group continued their fast and had it after completing the experiment. Both groups were then asked to perform an exercise to choose 10 products (with sustainable options available for each choice).

"There was a substantial difference between how the two groups behaved: consumers who had breakfast showed a much stronger tendency to purchase sustainable goods than those who were still hungry, 8% in our study. The specific scope of this study means that these percentages cannot necessarily be translated directly to real life. However, they highlight the fact that fundamental human needs have an important impact on our consumption habits and what we purchase (or do not purchase). This speaks to a hierarchy of needs and that sustainability and the environmental impact of consumption become less relevant to consumers in certain situations or environments where the need for survival far outweighs considerations of sustainability," explains Robert.

Basic needs implicitly impact our choices

What is more important is to understand how such behaviors evolve. Much research has been dedicated to attitudes, values and habits of which consumers are aware and which they are able to explicitly articulate. It has been repeatedly noted that while consumers may share certain values on topics such as environmental, social or animal welfare issues, there is often a discrepancy between their stated values and their true purchasing habits.

... if you want to respect your values, don't go shopping when you're hungry!

 "Our research highlights the fact that there are also implicit, automatically activated factors that guide consumer behavior. As such, hunger alters human associations with sustainable food products, and much of this is happening spontaneously, sometimes without being noticed by the consumer. If you're hungry, you may intuitively react to this situation, activate certain implicit lay beliefs about sustainable products and modify your habits accordingly. It is interesting that, in our experiment, food deprivation primarily operated at the implicit level, but did not affect the explicit evaluation. Aside from hunger, there are many other aspects that influence our behavior, but basic human needs definitely emerged as important factors that merit further research. In the meantime, if you want to respect your values, don't go shopping when you're hungry!" concludes Robert.

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