I don’t want people to panic, but…

August 18, 2020
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By Andrew Licata


There has been some conjecture in the Australian media about the current COVID 19 pandemic.  The uncertainty created by the COVID 19 crisis has heavily impacted consumer sentiment and behaviour on many fronts.  On the one hand, people who felt threatened by the virus, in its early stages, unleashed a buying frenzy of toilet paper despite authorities telling people to remain calm.  On the other hand, some people are refusing to wear masks despite it being mandatory in some stores (and despite the reality that COVID 19 is real).  The example of a woman, in a Melbourne Bunnings store, claiming she did not have to wear a face mask as it was her “right as a living woman to do whatever I want” received significant media coverage. The above examples demonstrate the complexities associated with consumers settling into what Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, deemed as the new normal.  This new normal has seen an element of cognitive dissonance emerge with retail businesses having to adapt to the evolving consumer challenges.

Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds “inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change.”. (Dictionary n.d.) As discussed above, despite consumers knowing there was no need to panic, they still emptied supermarket shelves.  In this same context, despite a consumer knowing it was mandatory to wear a mask because COVID 19 is a real threat, this consumer still chose to challenge this requirement.  These are two clear examples but there are also subtle examples of cognitive dissonance as well.  Generally speaking, it is well documented that everyone needs to stay home, but consumer sentiment is that it is also important that people go out.  So off to the shop I go, mask in bag just in case, there are no reported cases in the local area so not something I need to worry about.  Not sure how much toilet paper I should buy!  Oh, have to put my mask on … bother!!

Consumer Cognitive Dissonance Behaviour

The argument here is that everyone has an element of cognitive dissonance.  In any event, the level of cognitive dissonance is not the primary focus here.  What is of particular interest is how retail businesses are responding to consumer cognitive dissonance behaviour.  It is well documented that businesses are implementing visible safety measures including hand sanitiser at entrances, plastic barriers and enhanced cleaning practices.  How companies take care of the safety of their employees, the sustainable and eco-friendly products they sell, and the company’s purpose and values are also important components.  Other offerings include a shift to online services, curb side pick-up and drive through services.  These strategies and tactics ultimately provide stakeholders, local communities, and society with tangible evidence that businesses are taking a healthy and caring approach. 

The Challenge

However, despite the proactive steps taken by retail businesses, the recent resurgence of the coronavirus predominantly in Victoria, and to a lesser extent NSW, is causing increased uncertainty amongst consumers in the Australian economy.  The cognition I want to go to Bunnings but I don’t want to wear a face mask is dissonant in consideration of the information that if you do not wear a mask, it may be dangerous to you and others.  The challenge for retail business is to understand how dissonance works and how to persuade consumers to adapt to the new normal.   This is no time to panic but the existence of many retail businesses depends upon this.

Written by Andrew Licata, Marketing and Careers professional with 20 years experience at the forefront of Marketing and Careers Education at multiple institutions.

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