The Corona Virus Pandemic has and will continue to have a profound effect on all of us. Companies like ours have sent most of our staff home to work remotely, our teams are becoming experts at video conferencing platforms, and some new testing approaches have emerged. Our home lives and work lives have collided and one day merges into the next. Everyone has formed new routines and discovered positives and negatives in our new reality.
Now the talk is turning to “starting up the economy” and “getting back to work.” Yet a question that remains: what will the future hold? There are many articles and webinars appearing that address this question. They touch on the more obvious, remote working will become more the norm, technology will play a bigger role in how we communicate, social distancing will be part of our normal life (at least in the short term), enhanced cleaning procedures, and there will be lasting economic effects of this crisis.
Like many companies, we are anxious to get back to work, doing what we love, supporting our clients and facing new challenges each day. So, a small group of Sensory Spectrum staff gathered together (virtually of course) to talk about what we see as the future our business and our industry. What will change? We hit all the top of mind stuff that is coming out in other articles. Once we got through those, we dug deeper into what was to come for us and our clients. Here are some of the impacts and changes we expect as we emerge from this crisis.
Socially Distant Sensory Panels: Our work is dependent on gathering groups of people (panelists or participants) together and asking them to taste, touch, smell, and observe a wide variety of products. This may be difficult in the future due to ongoing social distancing requirements. Additionally, our panelists and consumer participants may no longer be willing to gather to support the research. We will need to find novel ways to gather data while respecting the safety of our participants. Perhaps smaller panels who can work virtually, at home evaluations, or drive by testing. All requiring a change in our physical environments and in our traditional methodologies.
Reduced Travel Consulting: As a consulting firm, most of our staff is traveling (by plane) 30-50% of the time. In the short term this mode of transportation is prohibited by many companies and government organizations. How do we continue to support our projects without traveling by air? Does the option of travel by car become more acceptable? Is there a restructuring of the business into small hubs located regionally that can travel to clients in the region? We have even joked about getting an RV to take our expertise on the road. This could mean longer travel times and changes to logistics. Or, perhaps, projects follow other parts of the business and just become virtual.
Economic Impact Research: The success of our business is tied to the success and growth of our clients. With the negative impact on the economy, many clients are talking cost cutting to weather the storm ahead. Often sensory research is delayed or cancelled in these situations. We will need to rethink not only how to safely execute our studies but find more economical approaches (fewer resources, less analysis, shorter reports, top lines only,). We have seen that many clients are accepting modified approaches to gather data. They are willing to use small groups (1-4 people) to screen and release products. Will this mean that companies no longer see the need for sensory groups or that they can be reduced in size? They were able to operate with less scrutiny during the quarantine so why not continue?
Evolving Consumer Trends: Then there are the people. Have we now rewired how people approach their lives within our society? Does the fear of scarcity send us back to wartime rationing or the era of bomb shelters and survivalists gathering stable food stockpiles? We could also move in the other direction of only buying fresh food from local farms with minimal human interaction. Whatever happens this could change the types of foods that are being developed. Categories like canned soups, canned vegetable, and breakfast cereal became favorites in the grocery store during this crisis. Do they remain top choices or return to their previous positions?
This virus hit those with underlying health issues particularly hard. Has this heightened the focus on health? Will we see products targeted at immunity, weight loss, respiratory health, or virus resistant packaging? We may find our businesses needing to learn how to evaluate an entirely new category of products with new sensory attributes and very different consumer attitudes. The opposite might be the case. A who cares approach, with all the bad news, people may elect to eat for comfort. Will consumers be consuming more baked goods, confections, or hearty meals like mom used to make? For the last year we’ve seen a spike in plant based everything. Does the trend continue or will a major shift occur as a result of this massive change we are experiencing?
Regardless of the specifics, we will be facing a multifaceted set of challenges. There will be social impacts on how we as humans interact with one another. The damage to our economies has and will continue to have impacts on how live each day. As with any crisis, an entirely new set of products and services will emerge. As a part of the sensory and consumer insight industry we will need to react to the changes that are coming our way. We cannot predict what the future will hold, but we can stay positive and make sure our companies/clients have the tools they need to navigate the new normal.