The millennium headache

Are people planning to fill the bath with fresh water and stock up on tinned food for the millennium? Do they expect retailers to compensate and keep the shelves full? Are people taking tabloid stories of Soviet-style queues and bare shelves seriously? These are just some of the issues that The Henley Centre is exploring in its Millennium Tracker programme.

These concerns are critical to retailers and marketers, as consumers will behave according to what they anticipate might happen. And in thinking about the millennium, the real difficulty for people is that they do not have benchmarks upon which to assess the risks involved. So behaviour will depend upon buyers’ own assessment of the risk, the extent to which they feel the millennium is worthy of special behaviour, the size of their households, and how much they generally like to ensure they have a well-stocked larder.

When the Henley Centre looked at people’s perceptions of shortages of food and essentials during this period, we find that more people are concerned that supermarkets might underestimate demand (37 per cent), than are worried about shortages caused by the millennium bug (33 per cent). This figure is similar to the number of people who claim to do their main Christmas shop more than a week in advance (33 per cent).

To gain some insight into the likelihood of widespread stockpiling, the research also examined people’s usual advance preparation for the Christmas period. Those with a stockpiling mentality who do their major Christmas shop longer than a week ahead make up 14.85 million consumers. This group may well be susceptible to rumours of shortages in 1999/2000, and are certainly in a better position to act on these in advance. If they significantly change their behaviour in the run-up to Christmas/New Year 1999, they will have considerable influence on what is left on the shelves during the final shopping period. To prevent panic-buying, it will be important for retailers to reassure consumers at point of purchase in the weeks before the holiday period.

According to the research, people are slightly more confident that supermarkets will have what they need for the millennium than for Christmas. This is likely to reflect the very particular and often elaborate nature of Christmas celebrations, involving the tree, decorations, traditional Christmas dinner and other more personal family traditions. In contrast, consumers appear to see the millennium as a more straightforward event.

This may be partly a consequence of the number of people expecting to spend the millennium either at their own home (35 per cent) or the home of a friend/family member (16 per cent). We are very likely to see a much more extravagant approach to the Christmas preparations (new decorations, a bigger tree) and improvements to the home in the months before. This extended period of in-home hospitality, with family and friends coming together, is likely to be a trigger for DIY activity, new furniture, a new kitchen and so on.

For the remainder, the millennium still appears to be seen as little more than an intensification of the usual New Year’s Eve festivities. While 82 per cent of consumers said they weren’t concerned about running out of party food, 79 per cent were not concerned about running out of alcohol and other drinks.

Sixteen- to 24-year-olds appear to be the most anxious group overall with 31 per cent concerned about party food, and 42 per cent con cerned about running out of alcohol. This reflects the greater importance this generation places on the millennium as a significant milestone to celebrate, and their expectation that this will be an exciting party elsewhere (only 16 per cent of this age group expect to spend the evening at home). Declining anxiety about a shortage of party food and drink by age also correlates with declining belief in the personal significance of the millennium among older consumers.

When asked what people thought they were most likely to run out of during this extended Christmas/New Year period, the majority mentioned bread and milk as the first two items.

This primary focus on perishables suggests a belief that it will be their short shelf-life that will lead to a trip to the shops. There is an evident assumption that shops will remain open during this period to allow for this possibility.

Overall, relatively low anxiety among consumers reflects the high levels of trust they place in supermarkets to manage the millennium adequately. The headache for manufacturers and retailers is to live up to these expectations.

Rachel Clare is a senior consultant at the Henley Centre

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