Changes in consumer behavior reflect shifting values

Changes in consumer behavior are more than temporary responses to the COVID-19 pandemic — they are changes that reflect shifting societal values, said UW-Madison Profs. Evan Polman and Nancy Wong.

In “The UW Now” livestream event put on by the alumni association, both professors highlighted that changes in consumption are needed to create smarter consuming and more socially responsible societies.

Polman, an associate professor in the Wisconsin School of Business, noted several downfalls of current consumer culture including that some consumers have responded to the pandemic by stockpiling goods, a decision caused by panic. Other behaviors included price gouging — a way for businesses to use surcharges to pass on expenses to the consumers. 

He took the opportunity to urge viewers to email the attorney general if they experience price gouging. 

But despite these seemingly negative trends seen during the pandemic, Polman said he hopes that things don’t go back to what they were like before COVID-19. 

The rise of contactless service has meant increased automation, cashless transactions and new service designs and architecture, such as “dark retail” — outlets designed for exclusively online shopping. Polman believes such changes are promising reflections of consumer attitudes.

He explained that consumers became more interested in their consumption habits during the pandemic. He said he hopes that this new awareness surrounding consumption habits will create changes that outlast the pandemic. 

Similar to UW being forced to rethink education, “[consumers] have been forced to buck the status quo and do things differently,” he said. “Consumer decisions have a real effect on warming the planet.”

He said that beginning to rethink what we consume, how much we consume and how we consume could have great long-term benefits. 

While Polman looked forward towards environmental health, Wong, a professor in retail innovation in the School of Human Ecology called for social and collective healthcare for people. 

“Bigger threats emerging require giving up personal rights for the greater good,” Wong said, in hopes that COVID-19 may be the threat that inspires this change. “Your life is in others’ hands and theirs are in your hands.”

According to Wong, people will take action when the risk is perceived as greater than barriers. 

In today’s healthcare system, though, the barriers to receive quality care are far greater than the risks of sickness, she said. In the past, personal health has been an individual choice and healthcare services a private good, but Wong says personal health must become a social responsibility and healthcare services a collective good. 

Wong envisions a society where wearing a mask is not seen as an act of fear but as an act of kindness and where pandemic response is not focused on the self but on the community. 

-By Gavin Schopf