The Covid-19 crisis has upended the global economy. Airlines face dwindling passenger traffic; hospitals suffer exhausted workforces or mass layoffs; social venues are largely closed with many unlikely to re-open; and students and graduates experience fewer job prospects. Another deep recession is expected.
Even as so many sectors struggle, there are winners. Proctor & Gamble saw U.S. sales rise by 10% this past quarter, the largest gain in decades. Amazon saw its stock increase 27% for the year, as Walmart’s rose 16% in March. Since the start of the year, Netflix added 16 million new subscribers; Peloton saw its revenue grow 66% in the past quarter; and Dominoes Pizza’s same-store U.S. sales were up 7% in the same period. The list goes on. These companies – the winners of the Covid-19 pandemic – also influence the health and well-being of millions of consumers.
A grand shift in consumer purchasing decisions
Several companies were supporting consumers in their shift toward living a healthier life long before Covid-19. Food manufacturers were diversifying product portfolios to include healthier options and reformulating products to remove sugar, salt, and fat. Beverage producers were expanding into no and low alcoholic drinks. Health and life insurers were getting people more physically active using devices and incentives. These companies were realizing the growing demand for healthy products.
The spread of Covid-19 has led companies to try to predict consumer purchasing decisions during a time of substantial uncertainty. Consumers are turning toward brands that provide comfort and familiarity, filling “pandemic pantries” with dried goods and alcoholic beverages. Smokers have stocked up on cigarettes, as e-cigarette sales have declined with the closure of many vape shops. Early hoarding of hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and disinfectant have been replaced with hair dye and nail polish. Over-the-counter medications such as vitamins and cough syrup that reduce fever and pain have flown from the shelves. These changes represent the largest and fastest shift in consumer behaviors in modern history.
A post-Covid recovery program for health
With the intractable unemployment rate and widespread civic unrest, a post-Covid health recovery program that gets people back to health should be created that aligns with the economic recovery programs that get people back to work. This initiative would be led by businesses across sectors influencing health and include a targeted focus on those with the greatest risk to their wealth and health: the 60-plus age category. Covid-19 has encouraged companies to support older adults with designated shopping hours, though much more needs to be done. A few recommendations may guide this approach.
Foster good health with appropriate product reformulation: During past recessions, several manufacturers reformulated products to reach specific price points. More sugar was added to chocolate and skimmed milk powder in yogurt was replaced with cheaper whey powder. These should be stopped. The reformulation of products to reduce sugar, salt, and fat content; develop lower and no-alcohol beer; fortify with nutritional ingredients (such as fiber); and limit preservatives (including nitrates) in certain meat products could begin a windfall of benefits for consumers. With most Covid-19 deaths occurring in the 60-plus category, companies should consider appropriate product reformulations to meet the health and nutrition needs of the most vulnerable segment of society.
Align reductions on merchandise with promoting health: The easing of lockdowns and travel restrictions will lead to price reductions as companies clear inventory. The markdowns of products nearing expiration or out-of-season goods should support healthy activities. Price reductions on nutrient-rich foods, oral hygiene products, gym and sporting apparel and equipment, lifesaving medications, digital health devices, and more should be considered as companies unload excess inventory.
Design age-appropriate products for better health in the home: The emergence of the 60-plus market online will require new ways of reaching these consumers. Companies will need to design and market age-specific products for use in the home such as online, age-appropriate physical activity and mental health programs. This will go far to get the 60-plus market back to health while opening new opportunities for business.
The Covid-19 crisis has brought the world to a historical juncture. Decades-long improvements in health may be reversed, as several states lift restrictions to get back to business. Sensible leadership from the business community is so sorely needed to get America back to health and prosperity. Let’s get to it.
Gillian P. Christie, Doctor of Public Health Candidate, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Scott C. Ratzan, Distinguished Lecturer, CUNY Graduate School of Public Health; Former Senior Fellow, Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government, Harvard Kennedy School & Former Vice President, AB InBev and Johnson & Johnson