The changes forced upon humanity are rapidly accelerating some long-term underlying trends - especially the shift to digital and online. While many businesses are fearful for the future, some are looking to the new normal a time to transform, adapt and target new opportunities for growth. Citizens and businesses here have demonstrated that we are an adaptable and resourceful people; now it's time to step up and find a way to readjust, realign and reassert ourselves as we take on the challenges of adapting to the 'never normal'.
Covid-19 is changing how consumers live their lives
We clearly see the impact of Covid-19 on daily life; it is changing how consumers and businesses interact not only in Ireland but around the world. The pandemic is likely to alter not only Irish consumer behaviours permanently, but cause global, lasting structural changes to the consumer goods and retail industries.
A global Accenture survey of more than 3,000 consumers in April showed consumers have already begun shifting their purchasing priorities. Consumers overall said they were currently buying more personal hygiene and cleaning products, as well as canned and fresh foods than they had been two weeks prior - while purchasing fewer fashion, beauty and consumer electronics items.
Not surprisingly, the survey found that the pandemic is causing more people to shop for groceries online. The realignment of purchasing priorities, personal lifestyles, and working practices is mandating significant changes to retail and commerce. More importantly, however, the findings indicate that many of the changes in consumer behaviour are likely to continue long after the pandemic.
Irish consumers are looking at products and brands through a new lens. The impact of Covid-19 will not be temporary; we can look to the most recent recession to see that changed consumer behaviour becomes the 'new normal'.
Prior to the 2008 financial crash, Irish shoppers were very brand loyal and not as price sensitive as seen in other markets. Post-crash, we saw the rise of discounters and consumers splitting their shopping across different stores to take advantage of special offers. People became more price-conscious and thrifty. Interestingly, they never reverted to type.
For example, consumer research from 2014 - when we were well on our way to recovery - showed that 78pc of consumers were buying more goods on special offer than prior to the recession, and 66pc were likely to buy more own-label goods than prior to the crash.
'Deep discounting' had become a feature of the retail market in recovery. In recent years volume growth in retail sales was rarely matched by value growth. Data from the Retail Ireland quarterly monitor Q3 2019 showed volume growth of 5.1pc versus value growth of only 2.3pc.
Supply chains need to adapt
Supply chains in Ireland are currently being tested like no crisis in recent history, with the pandemic illustrating just how central the role of a well-functioning supply chain plays in society. There are some good news stories for business - anecdotally some grocers and consumer goods businesses have reported sales during lockdown matching those of previous Christmas periods.
However, the spread of Covid-19 among workers in meat plants, for example, demonstrates how operations and supply chains are fundamentally challenged.
These disruptions are different across industries and sectors. 71pc of companies surveyed in 2018 didn't have a business operations contingency plan in place if a pandemic lasted longer than a couple of weeks. Even companies with well-structured and managed supply chains have been disrupted.
In this new supply-and-demand landscape, Irish retail and consumer goods businesses should look to re-purpose and reshape a number of elements of their businesses.
A digital and analytics backbone is crucial to understanding and meeting consumers' requirements. It is also essential for navigating supply chain complexity, anticipating disruption, and quickly developing a response.
This digital backbone also enables companies to be ready to service consumers as the shift towards e-commerce intensifies. Companies need to find new ways to manage the influx of digital demand, perhaps through partnering with others in the technology ecosystem. And companies also need to understand how to sustain this increased e-commerce penetration - perhaps through offering price and loyalty incentives to newly- acquired consumers.
All of these decisions and capabilities are enabled only when a robust digital infrastructure is in place. There are few companies in existence today that don't wish they had stronger and more integrated e-commerce capabilities than they currently have.
A new way of life and work
Working from home, facilitated by the use of online collaboration tools will stick - more of us will spend some, or all of our time, in the home office and this online collaboration will bleed over into our social lives as well. As we have become accustomed to online work meetings, we've also adopted the same technology to enable our social lives.
Businesses need to work to preserve the extended workforce, prioritise their physical safety and mental well-being and be flexible about what is and isn't possible right now.
In this time of social distancing, leaders need to ensure employees and the extended workforce feel as connected to each other as possible. If facilities are open, make sure workers can interact safely. If facilities are closed, check in on employees regularly and keep them updated.
Plan for distributed continuity and help to up-skill your workforce by using data and applied intelligence to segment skills based on supply chain capabilities to understand training needs, and reallocate workers to areas of high demand.
Have a 'Purpose' and understand the importance of local and community
'Generation P' - a combination of Gen Y & Z - are those consumers who demand that companies have a purpose which goes beyond shareholder value. One third of Gen P will pay more to companies that stand for issues they care about and 50pc of them have shifted purchases away from companies that disappoint them with their words or actions on social issues.
Gen P may soon be joined by other generations, as we have all learned the value of community over the past few months. There have been some great examples of businesses like restaurants and cafés supporting frontline workers and those cocooning at home.
Brand owners need to be conscious of the social position of their brands and how authentic that really is. Companies can help society both directly, by supporting immediate healthcare needs - like distilleries large and small switching to production of hand sanitiser - and indirectly, by supporting local communities. We have seen grocery retailers and public parks in Dublin prioritising the vulnerable in society by creating special opening times for them.
Businesses should also understand that employees play roles more broadly in their families and their communities and may need to be facilitated in fulfilling these roles.
The importance of sustainability
Irish businesses and brands need to leverage our sustainability credentials. Now that the panic over lockdown has begun to subside, we see consumers increasingly conscious of how much and what they are consuming. They are limiting waste and reducing frivolous spending. 45pc of those surveyed by Accenture said that they were making more sustainable choices when shopping and would continue to do so.
More than half (53pc) of our Gen P consumers are attracted to companies and products that provide credible green credentials, minimise environmental harm and invest in sustainability.
Secure the supply base
Covid-19 starkly illustrates the need for all companies to consider the future security of the supply base, harnessing the relationships they've built with suppliers of all sizes - small, medium and large.
The crisis calls for a deeper understanding of both known and unknown risks to the supply base, including taking precautionary measures in support of small and medium-sized businesses and local ecosystems. It also amplifies the importance of predictive modelling and applied intelligence.
Securing the supply base now will require some key actions: mobilise a response team, expand the risk framework and continuously sense and prioritise risks. This will help our communities manage the short-term crisis and provide businesses with the greater resilience and customer-centricity that will be vital to growth as the Irish economy rebounds.
This is a time of unprecedented business disruption. The practical actions we recommend will help Irish companies respond in the most effective way, now and in the future. The overarching objective is to reshape for the future by building greater responsibility, agility, responsiveness, and resilience across the organisation including within the supply chain.
In this, it is important to recognise that supply chains are critical to more than the bottom line - they are the essential lifelines that humanity relies upon.
The future, while challenging, also presents opportunities for those companies that are equipped to take advantage. Companies that help Irish society manage the new world after Covid-19 and create a foundation for competitive advantage and growth, with a focus on responsibility, will be differentiated as leaders in the future.
Ross Mac Mathúna is the Consumer Goods & Services Lead, Products at Accenture and a former Special Advisor in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine