Retailers on a Mission for Transformation

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By Dr Pilar Rojas Gaviria, Department of Marketing, University of Birmingham and Professor Domen Bajde, University of Southern Denmark

Crouched at my desk in Sao Paulo
At my house in
the rua Lopes Chaves
In a trice, I felt a chill inside me.
I shivered, deeply moved
With the stupid book looking at me.
Can’t you see
that I was remembering
That up there in the North, my God!
Very far from me
In the active blackness of nightfall
A pale, thin man with his hair in his eyes,
Having wrapped himself in the remains of the day,
Has just turned in and is sleeping
That man’s as Brazilian as I am.

Mário de Andrade,

In the current climate, there are families in seek of essentials: toilet paper, soap, flour, rice, pasta and even medicine. Some of these vulnerable consumers, deprived from the basics, are those with less spare income to advance their purchases, with less interior space to stockpile and without a vehicle to transport big volumes of goods. Some of these vulnerable consumers may even be our health sector heroes that will be there for us and our loved ones during these difficult times. Yet, returning late from work all they might find are empty shelves raided by panicky shoppers.

Stockpiling is making visible the inequalities and putting pressure into the routines of the supply chains.  Our governments and retailers reassure us, there is enough for all and there is no reason to panic. There is a call for consumers to be responsible, trust retailers and do the sensible thing, avoiding stockpiling. If we are to trust these expert reassurances and wish to avoid causing disruptions in supply, the rational thing to do is to listen.

Yet, consumer behaviour often follows an alternative emotional path. In this crisis, there are competing emotions. Consumers are affected by an atmosphere of uncertainty; they see their life routines drastically changing without no certain expiration date. Today, some are thinking about how to home-school their children, sometimes alone, as a single parent, with a chronic illness to palliate, and/or with a full-time job, consumers seek refuge at home. They want to comfort and provide for their families. They need to be sure they have the essentials to soothe sadness and anxiety. Moreover, they may have only inadvertently engaged in stockpiling just by purchasing some extra goods and doing more frequent trips to the supermarket.

Retailers efforts to feed the nation

In their mission to feed the nation retailers have started by mobilising proven and classic problem-solving tactics. They began by limiting the number of pieces per customer, per essential item, we can purchase. They are accounting for volume per item instead of diversifying the shelves. They are hiring personnel, helping those who have recently lost their jobs. They are trying to strengthen the logistic process to dress the shelves and to deliver more frequently the growing number of online orders of the extremely vulnerable. Yet besides these tremendous efforts, today most supermarkets are deprived of the essentials, online purchasing slots are complete for many weeks to come, and the phone calls made by those quarantined at home cannot be answered.  The world is divided between those with plenty of stock at home, which may not even get used and those struggling to get their weekly essentials. Going to the supermarket is becoming a painful and discomforting experience.

Emotional transformation of shoppers and suppliers

To tackle the crisis, retailers are opening stores at exclusive hours for vulnerable consumers.  Kindness and empathy are not unknown to consumers. We sometimes act kindly to strangers in the store, helping, for instance, an older person standing in front of us, or struggling to reach an item. The fact that we have exclusive times offered to the most vulnerable, is recognising that business as usual does not serve well the needs of all is a valuable insight we may want to keep for the long term.

As consumers we are also being transformed, we are keeping our distance queuing at the entrance of supermarkets, to help the collective efforts to support frontline health workers. We are learning that little gestures of generosity come with impactful results. Equally, we are starting to reconnect with local producers. We are all amid the chaos, creating a much needed welcoming and kind atmosphere for the most vulnerable among us.

How do we further boost solidarity?

Retailers started the response to this crisis following the path of reason, putting in place limiting mechanisms to stop stockpiling. However, we know retailers excel in their capacity to communicate, seduce and convince, now is the time to mobilise this strength in order to re-ignite our community spirit.

Not so long ago, we were all moved by one of the NHS nurses explaining how she did not find anything decent to purchase at the supermarket after her difficult shift. Her story mobilised many societal forces and was even mentioned by the first minister. We should not underestimate the power of storytelling to move us into empathy, and emotional proximity. There is an educational role that needs to be fulfilled in order for us, consumers, to not only understand, but also feel the need and importance of the little gestures of solidarity.

Retailers have the intellectual resources to transform their shopping online and physical stores to be sure stories of courage, from NHS staff, supply chain workers, cleaners, drivers, and supermarket staff find their way into our homes and hearts. They have the power to transform themselves into more inclusive and compassionate spaces.

We count on them!


  • Bernard McGuirk (1997) Latin American Literature: Symptoms, Risks & Strategies of Post-structuralist Criticism.

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