The Next Wave of Essential Products Will Help Consumers Cope with Isolation  4/8/2020

Products like toys will be part of the next wave of essential items to bring a sense of normalcy to isolated families

So, you think toys are a “non-essential” category right now? Just ask those parents who will be home 24/7 with their kids for the next few weeks. How about school and office supplies? Tell that to everyone working or learning remotely for the first time. And about beauty products? Well, wait till people start seeing the grey roots showing up in their hair during virtual office meetings, or their skin drying out from all of the hand sanitizer they’ve been using.

Sure, shelf-stable food, hand sanitizer and toilet paper were the first among the first wave of essential products, but as most of us are now facing at least a month – and likely longer – at home, consumers are beginning to seek out products that are not necessarily key for survival, but are nevertheless important for maintaining a sense of well-being, to continue working, or simply, just to keep from losing their minds. 

“That heightened emotion of the everyday life-saving slows down a little and then we start to think about more amusing but equally important things around lifestyle issues,” said Wendy Liebmann, CEO and Chief Shopper at WSL Strategic Retail, who I spoke with recently on The ECRM Podcast. "I've noticed that retailers like Michael's have been sending out crafting and school supplies [promotions], and some companies are even sending out information about how to help kids get exercise.”

Indeed, many of these consumers on lockdown are looking for anything that will help bring a sense of normalcy to their lives and so this second wave of essential items will include products that meet the needs of the new normal for the time being:

Products that occupy/entertain/distract: Products such as toys, games and arts and crafts keep consumers – and especially their kids – busy during the long hours at home. And since we all know how quickly kids get bored with things, mom and dad will need a steady refresh of these items.

“Consumers have prepared for their family’s survival over an extended period by stocking up on the basic necessities, but as schools and workplaces closed, phase two of the big scramble began,” says Juli Lennett, NPD’s toys industry advisor. "U.S. parents loaded up on things to keep their kids occupied at home, help them navigate their new homeschooling situation, and to also be a source of entertainment for the whole family as we spend more time at home.”

Sales of traditional school supply lists and creativity categories are growing, according to NPD, including items like paint and supplies, construction paper, crayons, color markers and chalk (though many restaurants are buying chalk these days to mark off six-feet on the sidewalks outside of their takeout areas).

'Consumers have prepared for their family’s survival over an extended period by stocking up on the basic necessities, but as schools and workplaces closed, phase two of the big scramble began.' -- Juli Lennett, NPD’s toys industry advisor.

In addition to these general merchandise items, some food items and alcoholic beverages are filling this role as well, with Instagram live cooking classes and the increasingly popular virtual happy hours in which many people are participating with friends and colleagues (click here to hear about one such virtual happy hour that drives more than 100 paying guests each weekend). Ingredients for these activities is something that will make the shopping lists of participants looking to bring the happy our experience home.

Products for working/learning from home: With so many people working and learning from home for the first time, traditional school and office supplies will eventually be needed as students and workers run out of paper, pens, printer ink and the like. And organizational products will be needed to help keep their makeshift temporary home offices space uncluttered. In addition, with everyone moving to video conferencing, accessories like selfie lights, headsets and microphones will be in demand.

Interior home, garden and organizational products: One way consumers are using their time in lockdown is to do some cleaning and organization inside the home (I've certainly used this time to purge a bit!). And those with gardens are spending more time in them as a safer way to get some fresh air, and are looking for items to spruce it up. 

Beauty and wellness products: While we may not be leaving the house as much, video conferencing means we will still be seen, and some consumers may want to be camera-ready (even if they are not wearing pants). And with extra time on their hands, consumers are already incorporating self-care regimens into their routines. 

“Consumers are looking to comfort themselves, and a lot of that is with skincare," said Marlea Clark, CMO of Stella Rising during our recent podcast interview. "Masks, anything exfoliating or anything with skin benefits are really doing extremely well as people are reaching out for those products that will make their skin look better, that will be a little time spent caring for themselves and making themselves feel better in these very scary times."

According to Stella Rising’s research, consumers are spending more time online searching for information and education about products and beauty regimens. “We are seeing those search results up all around topics of caring for yourself, or searching for ingredients,” added Clark. “They have more time to spend on brand’s websites.”

Other consumers may want to take advantage of the extra time they have to improve their health, and are starting or stepping up their workouts, and will look for more vitamins, supplements and functional beverages to complement their regimens. (By the same token, there’s the camp that will binge-watch Tiger King and every other Netflix series, so snacks will still remain essential!) 

Pet care and entertainment: People aren’t the only ones stressed-out by this isolation; their pets are, too. With all of the people now home and around day and night, consumers’ dogs and cats may start to feel a little anxious. And as with kids, these pets’ current toys will only keep their interest for so long, and treats, toys and anxiety relief products will be important during the lockdown.


Marketing the New Essentials: Providing Solutions Instead of Selling Products

This shift in demand from food and staples to products aimed at coping with isolation provides retailers and brands with new opportunities for engaging these consumers by creating engaging content focused on tips and solutions that will help address those pain points mentioned above. 

“It’s important for companies to use this time to show understanding, support and empathy,” says Mark Evans, Executive Director of The Sasha Group, which helps brands with marketing and growth.

Mark Evans, The Sasha Group

“Do not be exploitive around what you are doing. Take this time to understand your community and really listen to them, and create new products or solutions that truly make a consumer’s life a little easier in a time that is uneasy. This is a time when you can be really creative in your marketing and bring some joy, some usefulness and some utility.”

With social media usage exploding over the past few weeks, consumers are hungry for this type of content. Host an hour-long Instagram Live Lego lesson; provide some home office organizational tips; host a virtual happy hour or a group workout. Involve store employees in these efforts, make them personal. Because the one thing most consumers are missing these days is something just about everyone would consider essential – and that’s human interaction. 

Editor’s note: The ECRM & RangeMe Efficient Supplier Introductions provide opportunities for buyers to source many of the types of products needed for this second wave of essentials via category-specific live virtual supplier presentations. Buyers and suppliers interested in learning more about how the ESIs work, and to see a list of programs can click here for details.


Joseph Tarnowski

VP Content

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