Reflections on shelf testing during the pandemic

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Trevor Brown

The pandemic thoroughly rocked the CPG world over the last two years—especially when it comes to consumer insights and market research. Shelf testing, traditionally done in-person, became incredibly complicated overnight as the pandemic gained momentum and rapid changes in consumer preferences made it tough to act on market research.

Without thorough market research, businesses face challenges in forecasting for 2022 and beyond. So how can brands know which consumer behaviors are temporary adjustments due to necessity and which are permanent?

Some pandemic changes are here to stay

The beginning of the 2020 pandemic saw high unemployment and significant disruptions to global commerce. New hobbies arose while families spent more time at home, then fell once consumers started going into the world again after spending months indoors. Now (fingers crossed) a certain amount of normality may be returning to consumer behaviors. However, a few pandemic changes are going to stick around.

The millennial market

Millennials are now the largest consumer base in today’s markets, and Gen Z is close behind them. Young people grew up with modern technology, and major economic upheavals have book-ended their adult lives. That means they have different expectations and consumption habits from previous generations.

Conscious consumption

Global events have sparked a shift in consumer mindset. Consumers are more focused on health and sustainability, and they expect the same from brands. Consumers are seeking less waste in packaging and smaller carbon footprints in manufacturing and distribution—they also now demand more brand transparency regarding labor ethics and material sourcing. Brands that strive to take care of their customers, their employees, and the environment are on the rise.

Remote work and the labor reformation

The pandemic forced a rapid shift in workplace policies for businesses to operate safely. Many companies shifted to a work-from-home model. Many businesses also cut labor and had a challenging reopening.

Across the nation, workers are reevaluating their relationships with their employers. Some are taking pay cuts to keep working from home. Many are reducing their spending overall so that they can work less. The reduced availability and increased labor costs force many businesses to make hard decisions as pandemic restrictions continue.

The rise of e-commerce

E-commerce rose as both a threat and an opportunity for CPG brands. Shopping from home has made digital marketing more important than ever, and it has also caused businesses to think critically about what the e-commerce experience should be.

Consumers are spending less time browsing supermarket shelves to discover new CPG products. Instead, they’re browsing algorithmic feeds and sponsored listings in an impersonal catalog format that omits the sensory and tactile experience of a trip to the local supermarket.

Supply chain challenges

The supply chain disruptions that emerged in 2020 have began a snowball effect across the CPG sector. Water, electricity, and fuel shortages led to massive distribution delays across all industries. Inflation related to supply chain issues caused ongoing consumer price sensitivity, especially in CPG staples like paper products and food. In response, brands tightened their assortments and changed their sources from international to domestic as much as possible.

DTC brands

DTC competition has disrupted many legacy brands thanks to the rise of e-commerce. Since DTC brands can do business while avoiding retail markup, many consumers buy their consumer packaged goods online directly from brand websites or marketplaces like Amazon, Walmart, and Etsy.

The pandemic has forced brands to evaluate assortments

A wide assortment usually allows brands to capture market share with niche offerings, but pandemic challenges have made it risky for CPG brands to go too wide.

  • The rise of e-commerce has made discoverability harder because it’s tough to inspire consumer trust through a screen.
  • Large brands have an edge both on shelves and in SEO, and they’ve started to enter the online space to challenge DTC competitors.
  • Supply chain issues make it more challenging to reliably manufacture and distribute wide product assortments.

As brands reevaluate their assortments in preparation for 2022, shelf testing and agile market research are more critical than ever.

Pandemic disruptions created shelf testing challenges

Consumer tastes and shopping habits are changing, and CPG brands must move fast to keep up with consumer preferences. Sustainability in packaging and transparency in labeling is more critical than ever, but shelf appeal is still necessary for retail brands. The e-commerce experience is also changing how customers interact with products.

Unfortunately, just when it was most important, shelf testing was more challenging than ever to execute safely and effectively due to the safety challenges related to the pandemic.

Social distancing

Conducting in-person tests while maintaining safe social distancing proved difficult or impossible for brands. Limited capacities in conference rooms created additional costs and made tests take longer.


An increased need for sanitation led to higher testing costs due to supplies and labor. Shortages in cleaning products caused significant headaches for brands trying to conduct research safely. Masks and gloves were hard to come by as well, then became an additional ongoing expense.

Remote work and digital communication

To cope with limited building capacities and social distancing, video conferencing and digital communication were critical. However, they made communication slower and more complicated.

Recruitment challenges

Safety concerns lead to more cancellations and smaller sample sizes. More costly incentives were the only way to encourage participation. Vaccination requirements in some places added complications to recruitment.

Constant social upheaval

Rapid changes in workplace policies, public health, and the labor market made it hard to get reliable results from market research. Consumers experienced numerous lifestyle shakeups, which altered their consumption preferences—sometimes temporarily, and sometimes permanently.

Supply chain

Once again, the supply chain contributed to shelf testing and packaging research difficulties because many industries saw delays and shortages. The availability of specific packaging materials changed almost daily, which made it harder for brands to determine what types of packaging to test in the first place.

Digital shelf testing in a new normal

Many brands, in response to pandemic difficulties, turned to virtual shelf testing for CPG products. Unfortunately, pulling the real-world shopping experience into the online space proved difficult for many researchers to execute. The extensive programming and modification required became expensive and time-consuming for CPG brands to pull off in a pinch.

Fortunately, aytm has developed a new Agile Shelf Test that makes virtual shelf testing reliable and affordable for CPG brands. We’ve constructed a photo-realistic virtual shopping experience packed with automation that helps brands get the data they need to make key assortment decisions without facing some of the hassles related to in-person shelf testing during the pandemic.

Looking for an advantage in market research during the pandemic? Try our fully virtual agile shelf test.

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