Consumer Behavior

Mid-April snapshot of COVID-19 shopper behavior in Portland, Oregon

We are now nearly two months into my photodocumentary project on the impacts of COVID-19 on ordinary people. I am doing this by taking snapshots on a weekly basis at one location, my Fred Meyer outlet located on SW Barbur Boulevard in southwest Portland.

Each week I visit aisles where high-value commodities that have taken on almost supernatural powers or larger-than-life powers are kept. The prevalence of those supplies give me what I’m calling my COVID-19 Portland shopper sentiment index.

The goods I have focussed on include: dry beans and rice, canned goods (specifically beans), pasta, cleaning goods (such as sanitary wipes and bleach), and toilet paper and paper towels.

I took these shots at the Fred Meyer, where I also saw that customer adoption of voluntary cloth mask wearing still held at about 35 percent of shoppers, the same as the week earlier.

Here’ is my breakdown for April 17, 2020:

  • Toilet Paper: high anxiety (worsen)
  • Dry Beans/Rice: medium anxiety (same, bulk containers were mostly empty, shelves 1/3rd full)
  • Cleaning Goods: high anxiety for sanitizers, medium for other supplies (same)
  • Canned Beans: low anxiety (same)

Portland’s COVID-19 uncertainty appears to have calmed, sightly

I did my normal check of public sentiment this week by checking out what products were available at stores in my area in Portland, Oregon. I also wanted to check if the stores had implemented systems changes to encourage social distancing of six feet to protect essential workers (the employees who help ensure we are fed with food on the shelves) and the public.

To my surprise, I found that three businesses had indeed put measures into place: Grand Central Bakery (in Multnomah Village in Portland), New Seasons grocery store (in Sellwood in Portland), and Fred Meyer (in Southwest Portland). I visited Grand Central and Fred Meyer a day after the CDC issued new guidelines on April 3, after much delay, recommending people wear a cloth mask in public settings like stores, to prevent aerosol dispersion of the novel coronavirus and reduce the spread of COVID-19, particularly from asymptomatic persons. (See this study how infectious patient bioaeresols are dispersed and their risks.)

Cloth mask use was not widespread at stores I saw today (April 4). At Fred Meyer, I found toilet paper, rice, and beans on the shelves. Hand sanitizer is still no where to be found. Hoarding behavior appears to have subsided a bit, given the trends I’ve been documenting with my cell phone while shopping the last five weeks.

My weekly pulse of public mood focuses on shopping behavior of goods like toilet paper, cleaning supplies, rice, and dry beans. I was able to buy split peas and rice at Fred Meyer and lentils and split peas at New Seasons midweek.

Telling the COVID-19 story through visits to my local Fred Meyer

Like millions of Americans who have confronted the nation’s crisis in the face of the global pandemic and threat of COVID-19, I have responded to the new normal by trying to prepare for uncertainty.

Collectively, the behaviors of all of us reveal a lot about how we perceive the threat of the novel coronavirus to our health, our communities, and the economy. One fact I have gleaned is that many people believe the crisis is real and that it will be with us for a long time. I know this because the humble bean and legume have become one of the scarcest items in Portland, Oregon, my home. That tells me that average people want a hedge that will have value for many weeks to come. This is the perfect insurance policy to address this perceived fear.

In Portland, I have been documenting this hive mentality by taking pictures every week (since February 29) at my local Fred Meyer grocery story, on SW Barbur Boulevard, in southwest Portland. I observed several changes described this way through Facebook posts I shared.

March 14 Message:
Week three photo update on Portland shopper behavior in response to COVID-19. Panic level has bumped up again. Staples were cleaned out today: rice, beans, canned foods, pasta, flour, cleaning supplies, sanitizers, TP, paper towels. To me that says my community expects prolonged uncertainty. Seriously dry beans are never cleared out, ever!

March 20 Message:
The new underground economy is already evolving. [Beans] will be one of the new forms of barter, IF, and that’s a big IF, you can find them anywhere in Portland. I give you the humble pinto bean (an old friend who I can no longer find).

March 21 Message:
Like many fellow Portlanders, I have embraced the new reality. For me, the humble legume, the beautiful bean and lentil, is the new power symbol of our uncertain times. I find that reassuring that this often-maligned peasant food eaten by hundreds of millions the world over, because they can’t afford other food, is now the holy grail of worried Americans. I’ve always eaten beans–sometimes 7 days in a row. They are soul food. Today, I still couldn’t find any dry beans. So I bought some canned beans. Comfort food indeed. They do provide this small assurance that somehow we need little and we will get through hard times.