According to consumer research, supermarkets were the big retail winners of 2020. Principals’ Mary Winter explains.

If the past year has shown us anything it is that retail is intricately woven into everyday life.

Retail brands once seen as purely functional and low involvement turned out to be the most important in our lives.

As we learned during the pandemic, retail outlets such as supermarkets, post offices and petrol stations are crucial to survival and without them, our worlds fall apart.

In late 2020, Principals conducted qualitative research with Australian and New Zealand consumers exploring brand resilience and the dimensions that keep brands, including retail brands, strong during tough times.

In this research, supermarkets shone. Consumers consistently reported them as our brand heroes of 2020. This was true across Australia and New Zealand with brands such as Woolworth’s, Coles, Countdown, New World and Pak ‘n Save all receiving high praise for their performance during a challenging time.

Rather than me telling you what the supermarkets did so well during COVID that can inspire the future-proofing of retail, let’s hear what Australian and New Zealand consumers think.

Supermarkets knew their social importance

In 2020, supermarkets understood their importance in society and rose up to provide much needed services such as home delivery, click and collect and special opening hours.

Supermarkets quickly realised that it was not just business as usual; it was a time where society had to pull together.

In the words of one of our survey participants, “Woolworth’s stepped up. The way that they helped others really makes me feel that they’re getting more into giving back to the community, and that’s going to be what gives them the advantage in future.”

Inclusion and access

In our research, consumers expressed gratitude and admiration for supermarkets that made special opening hours for the elderly and disabled.

One of our research participants put it beautifully when they said: “Early during Australia’s COVID experience, Coles and Woolies stepped up by having special hours for the elderly. It was an incredible show of good will and left me feeling warm and fuzzy towards them.”

Across the ditch in New Zealand, consumers were equally effusive about Woolworth’s sister brand Countdown with one noting: “Countdown supermarket, particularly, stood out to me as they provided priority slots for home deliveries. I saw this advertised on their website when I was desperately trying to book a delivery slot to get food to my unwell elderly parents.”

And Kiwi supermarket New World also rose to the challenge with comments like: “New World supported community organisations who were supporting vulnerable communities by doing their supermarket shopping. They allowed community shoppers to do multiple trips a day to help meet community needs and protect vulnerable people.”

Safety first

In 2020, social distancing became a phenomenon for the first time. Efforts to provide safe stores was admired by participants in our research.

A research respondent said: “During lockdown, Pak N Save worked quickly to set out systems to ensure the safety of the public and of the workers. They put tents up outside so that people could line up while being sheltered and encouraged distancing and good safety practices in store.”

Seeing staff through a new lens

During COVID, supermarket workers became national heroes, at the frontline of risk like healthcare workers with our research participants noting: “The pressure shoppers put on workers was huge during COVID-19. Not only were they stocking the shelves as fast as they could – and no doubt working throughout the night – the staff were working so hard. One checkout operator showed me her hands, how sore they were from scanning so many products for shoppers.”


Innovation was praised during the past year and supermarkets again won praise for innovating around social needs such as making it easy to order online and providing ‘basic boxes’ with essentials to streamline purchases.

One of our research participants noted: “Woolworth’s is a brand that stood out for me. The introduction of their basic boxes was a brilliant idea and made life a little bit easier for a lot of people… I think this made them seem a lot more caring and personable.”

Staying calm and confident

Despite the fear that gripped people during the early stages of the pandemic with panic buying and hoarding, the supermarkets kept their cool. As a research respondent noted: “Woolworths remained calm in their approach to help customers.”

While other businesses ‘dropped their bundle’ and acted as if they were victims of the pandemic, supermarkets demonstrated true leadership which clearly resonated with consumers.

The lesson for other retail brands is clear. Take note of how supermarkets demonstrated social responsibility, innovating around customers’ needs and embracing the social values of the time to serve the community.

With the pandemic not yet over, there’s time for retail brands that haven’t yet done so to step up and win the hearts of consumers.

This article was first published on Inside Retail.