Yasmine Rohban, Associate Research Manager at the Choueiri Group Research department, shares the results from her research on changes in the Arab consumers’ sentiments and behaviors during the Covid-19 pandemic.
While the entire world was busy analyzing the Covid-19 pandemic and how the global economy was set to fall into recession, Arab Muslims, by the end of April, embarked on a spiritual journey of fasting and prayers. Traditionally, Ramadan has always stood out as the most-anticipated month, where people gather to share each other’s company, prayers, and meals. This year, however, strict measures aimed at containing the virus, prevented families from coming together and even worshippers from visiting mosques. So, how did Arabs react to this situation? What behaviors did the restrictions trigger in them? And how were their buying habits effected?
The research which was conducted internally by Choueiri Group’s Research unit incorporates inputs from over 4,000 Arab consumers, in five key MENA markets, to render a deep understanding of their views on the present circumstances.
Attitudes towards COVID-19
Arab respondents generally seemed to maintain high levels of hope despite all the unpleasantness surrounding Covid-19. While the pandemic triggered a certain amount of anxiety (33%), optimism remains as the prominent sentiment (43%) among respondents. Feeling at peace strongly registered as another positive sentiment (32%), which also correlates well with the inherent spiritual mindset brought about by Ramadan.
The results pertaining to how consumers felt about the pandemic varied between different markets and age groups. In KSA, respondents were more likely to feel optimistic, while in Egypt they expressed significant worry. The findings also show that Egypt, along with countries in the Levant attracted significant distrust, while KSA and UAE inspired greater confidence in the way decisions and arrangements were made. The worry factor was also largely expressed amongst Gen Y, while older adults (Gen X and Baby Boomers) seem to retain more positive attitudes, with a prevailing and passive sense of acceptance (calm and at peace). As for younger individuals (Gen Z) who usually tend to be less patient and lose interest easily, boredom being the most expressed feeling comes as no surprise.
Extra Time and Preferred Activities
Overall, the majority were happy to bond again with their kids and family members during the lockdown (80% said ‘I am happy to have more time to spend with my family’). Besides, the pandemic has clearly driven audiences to increase their media consumption, with the highest viewership boosts registering across TV, video, and social media. During the two most intense months of the COVID-19 pandemic, new household TV habits were established, and the trend continued into Ramadan. 50% of Arab consumers said their TV consumption increased significantly. Reiterating what one of our previous studies around COVID-19 also indicated, the pandemic affected each generation in different ways. While Gen Z seemed to fight boredom mainly with VOD and gaming, older adults were more likely to spend their extra time watching TV and cooking.
Ramadan and Shopping Habits
With restrictions making visits to the mosques and family gatherings impossible, this year’s Ramadan was strongly perceived to be unusual (81%) and brought with it many challenges (78%). Within this context, it’s no surprise that Ramadan 2020 was more focused on spirituality, as opposed to [traditional] rituals. This had a definite impact on shopping trends.
But the restrictions, were not the only reason behind the shift in consumer behavior and what people purchased during Ramadan. Despite the prevalent positivity which they voiced, Arab consumers could not shake off their feelings of “worry” with a focus on personal finances and the potential economic fallout due to Covid-19. 69% were worried about their finances, and the same percentage reported having their jobs directly impacted by the outbreak. Such concerns often lead to financial [revisions] and stringent money management, which soon translated into drops in spending.
Over two-thirds (66%) of respondents cut expenses to better manage their finances. Findings also show an increased emphasis on prioritizing needs (90% said ‘I feel it’s crucial to prioritize needs vs. wants’) and [only] considering the purchase of products that are essential (89% claimed ‘I’m only buying essentials nowadays’). As a result, consumer shopping priorities have shifted away from high value (luxury items and cars) and discretionary (clothing and beauty products) purchases, and are leaning more toward groceries and household basics. Shopping for gifts was also dampened this year.
As part of our survey, we also looked at how Arabs were planning to react after the lockdown was lifted. People expressed willingness to resume certain activities such as visiting malls (51%) and shopping in physical stores (54%) while taking the necessary precautionary measures. This was notably voiced among people residing in Jordan and the UAE.
Activities that pose a higher risk of exposure will remain on hold until the pandemic ceases. 81% will only consider traveling abroad after the virus is fully contained. The vast majority of Arab consumers (72%) have also placed the purchase of luxury items on hold, till the situation clears up. Interestingly, single people are keener to return to normal and more likely to start undertaking many of their usual activities as opposed to those who are married with kids (representatives of more cautious behavior).
While many behavioral changes have resulted from stringent enforcement, we should not undermine the influence COVID-19 has had on the way we live today. 8 in 10 people across MENA say that they now view life from a different perspective and that the pandemic has significantly altered what they value in life. With uncertainty surrounding how well these new consumer behaviors will stick, post the pandemic, it is crucial that brands continue to communicate with their audiences. The widespread expectation for brands to act and communicate differently during the crisis by conveying messages which add value and not noise, remains strong.
Opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.