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Consumer Behaviour in the Wake of COVID-19

Introduction
Background

Consumer behaviour has come to be understood as an important factor that determines the success of businesses and as such, the understanding of consumer behaviour has come to be understood as essential for firms. As noted by Assael “Consumers determine the sales and profits of a firm by their purchasing decisions. As such, their motives and actions determine the economic viability of the firm" (Asseal, 1995, p. 3). Consumer behaviour can then lead to both success of firms as well as their losses. It can also be useful for understanding the success of a specific industry. In this research study, focus is on the restaurant industry and how Covid 19 has impacted consumer behaviour in the past year since the pandemic was declared worldwide. This research is concerned only with the restaurant industry in London and as such it is geographically limited to a specific location. Within London itself, there are different kinds of restaurants and this research study does not take preferences as to which kinds of restaurants that will be considered for the research. The research study takes into consideration all kinds of restaurants within London.

The motivation for this research study is derived from the disruptive nature of the Covid 19 pandemic and how this may have affected the restaurant industry and to use the findings of this study to add to the knowledge on consumer behaviour, but with a focus on disruptive and sudden external factors that may influence consumer decision making. Covid 19 pandemic is an unexpected and disruptive event that has caused disruptions in many ordinary human activities around the world. Due to its immense potential to disrupt normal human life and activities, Covid 19 can also be termed as an economic catalyst (Mason, et al., 2020). Considering the effect that Covid 19 can have on human economic activities, one of the questions that is raised in research relating to the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 healthcare pandemic is related to consumers’ behaviours (Mason, et al., 2020).

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Current research into consumer behaviour after the Covid 19 pandemic came into existence relates to various areas of economic life and there are research studies based in different countries that have been conducted with reference to different industries. Some of these studies are useful for providing insight into how consumer behaviour may be impacted by the pandemic while most studies are useful for providing research methods for similar studies in the field of consumer behaviour. However, the rationale for this research study despite there being other studies related to consumer behaviour is that there is no specific study related to the restaurant industry.

There is no study that is particularly related to the restaurant industry in London. There is one study that does explore the impact of Covid 19 on consumer behaviour in England, but this study does not provide a focussed review of the restaurant industry (Chronopoulos, et al., 2020). However, this study does provide some insight into the general impact of Covid 19 by using a high frequency transaction level proprietary dataset comprising 101,059 consumers and 23 million transactions made available by a financial technology company (Chronopoulos, et al., 2020). The study found that discretionary spending declined during the fever period as the government imposed lockdown became imminent, and continued to decline throughout the lockdown period (Chronopoulos, et al., 2020). As restaurant industry is also impacted by discretionary spending behaviour, this study does have some relevance to the current research.

The restaurant industry can be termed as a niche industry, and as such there may be certain peculiar or unique aspects of consumer behaviour related to the restaurant industry, which merit deeper exploration. With this in mind, the current research is undertaken with two objectives. First, to explore the ways in which consumer behaviour may be impacted by the Covid 19 pandemic and to apply consumer behaviour theories to understand these changes. Second, to add to the existing research on Covid 19 effects on consumer behaviour in the specific context of restaurant industry, which is missing in the current literature.

Aims of the research

The aims of this research study are to explore the effects of the COVID 19 pandemic on consumer behaviour within the restaurant industry in London. The study is therefore focussed on the impact within a specific industry and in a specific geographical location. The objectives of the study are as follows:

Explore how the pandemic is driving changes to consumer behaviour and identify the changes in consumer behaviour driven by the pandemic in the specific context of the restaurant industry in London.

Evaluate how Faulkner’s theory can be used to explain or understand the changes in consumer behaviour.

Evaluate and explain how consumer behaviour theory can be used to understand the changes in consumer behaviour.

Identify the areas that are particularly impacted within Hospitality management and Restaurant management and how restaurants are adapting to these issues.

Explore the issues that are relevant to operations management in the restaurant industry in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic.

Identify the steps taken by restaurants for Health and Safety of restaurant management and its consumers throughout pandemic.

Research question

The overarching research question in this research is related to the effects of the COVID 19 pandemic on consumer behaviour within the restaurant industry in London. With this question, there are some sub-questions that will be explored in this study. These are as follows:

What is the link between Covid 19 pandemic and consumer behaviour with reference to the restaurant industry in London?

Can the consumer behaviour towards restaurants in the Covid 19 pandemic be explained with reference to consumer behaviour theory?

Structure of the dissertation

This dissertation is structured as follows. The chapter after the introduction is dedicated to a literature review where the dissertation will explain the main theories and concepts related to consumer behaviour. This chapter also discusses the existing literature on Covid 19 pandemic on consumer behaviour even where related to other industries. The next chapter is a discussion on the research methods which will explain in some detail the methods adopted for this research study. The chapter after that reports the findings of the semi-structured interviews. The chapter after that is the discussion chapter in which the literature and findings are collated. The final chapter is the conclusion which will conclude the dissertation with reference to the research questions.

Literature Review

Consumer behaviour theory

In a now dated but still relevant definition of consumer, it was stated that a “consumer is an individual who purchases, has the capacity to purchase, goods and services offered for sale by marketing institutions in order to satisfy personal or household needs, wants, or desires” (Walters, 1974, p. 4). The important aspect of this definition is how consumer is defined as an individual who purchases goods and services to satisfy personal or household needs, wants, or desires. This can be related to consumer behaviour and therefore, raises a question of how consumer behaviour theory can help explain consumer behaviour. Indeed, Walters (1974) went so far as to argue that consumer behaviour merely explains a subset of human behaviour and it is human behaviour that can help explain even thought, feeling or action by people.

Consumer behaviour is defined as “behaviour that consumers display in searching for, purchasing, using, evaluating, and disposing of products, services, and ideas” (Schiffman & Kanuk, 1997, pp. 6-7). Consumer behaviour theory can then be related to the study of how individuals make decisions to spend their available resources (time, money, effort) on consumption-related items. Consumer behaviour theory can help explain the reasons, motivations, and the patterns related to the purchase decisions of the consumers and it can cover different aspects of such behaviours that are related to the decisions made by the consumers in searching, purchasing, using, evaluating and disposing of products and services (Schiffman & Kanuk, 1997). Consumer behaviour theory itself is defined by Mowen as “the study of the buying units and the exchange processes involved in acquiring, consuming, and disposing of goods, services, experiences, and ideas” (Mowen, 1993, p. 6). As such, consumer behaviour theory is related to exploring different aspects of consumer purchase and allied behaviour. As is discussed below, consumer behaviour theory borrows heavily from the field of psychology, which is pertinent to explaining behaviour of the consumers.

Consumer behaviour theory was a relatively new field of study in the late 1990s (Schiffman & Kanuk, 1997). Due to the lack of an historical body of research related consumer behaviour theory, many of the concepts of the theory were borrowed from or adopted from other scientific disciplines, most notably from psychology as consumer behaviour theory also relates to the study of the individuals’ motivations and behaviours related to consumer decisions. Other influences on consumer behaviour theory development come from the fields of sociology, social psychology, anthropology, and economics (Schiffman & Kanuk, 1997). Due to these influences, the notion of utility being one of the foremost factors for consumer decision making has given way to the different factors that may be responsible for why consumers make the decisions that they do (Bray, 2008). Therefore, while earlier theorists and academics focussed on the utilitarian reasons for purchase behaviours (that may also be related to rational decision making), now theorists and researchers have taken to exploring consumer behaviour from other perspectives.

The principal theories that are identified in the field of consumer behaviour include some theories that researches have explained on while drawing on differing traditions of psychology and there are five major typological classifications that are now recognised as having a bearing on consumer behaviour. These include: Economic Man; Psychodynamic; Behaviourist; Cognitive and Humanistic. Although this research study relates to behaviour approach, it would be pertinent to explain other theoretical classifications briefly.

Economic theory is concerned with explaining the behaviour of the consumer in context of how consumers may behave rationally in the economic sense, to be aware of all the available consumption options and where choosing a less viable option, the behaviour of the consumers to choose alternatives for the optimum course of action (Schiffman & Kanuk, 1997; Schiffman & Kanuk, 2007). While economic theory does explain the economic contexts of decision making, it is generally considered that economic theory in itself is not adequate to explain the whole range of the factors that are responsible for human decision making because it relies on the notion that consumers always have adequate information, motivation or time to make such a ‘perfect’ decision (Bray, 2008). Moreover, human beings often also act on the basis of less rational influences.

The psychodynamic theory is derived from the same domain within psychology based on the work of Sigmund Freud and it seeks to relate behaviour to biological influence or ‘instinctive forces’ or ‘drives’ that influence individuals to act in certain ways outside of conscious thought (Bray, 2008). Applying this to the consumer behaviour theory, the key tenet of the psychodynamic approach would be to relate consumer behaviour to biological drives, and not individual cognition, or environmental stimuli (Bray, 2008).

Behaviourism approach is based on the link between behaviour and external events, where the latter may be driving the former. The factors behind behaviour are external to the individual (Bray, 2008). Applying this to the consumer behaviour theory, researchers who are exploring consumer behaviour from the perspective of behaviourism will depend on logical positivism for studying consumer behaviour (Bray, 2008). The cognitive approach ascribes observed action (behaviour) to intrapersonal cognition and sees the individual as an ‘information processor’ while also accepting the influential role of the environment and social experience for consumer decision making (Bray, 2008). Cognitive approach considers that consumers actively seek and receive environmental and social stimuli as informational inputs that then drive internal decision making (Bray, 2008). The humanistic model is based on the exploration of the concepts introspective to the individual consumer rather than describe generic processes (Bray, 2008).

Consumer behaviour can also be theorised on the basis of micro and macro factors that include individual to social or even global factors that are responsible for consumer decision making (Szmigin & Piacentini, 2018). Th macro factors that may be considered for explaining and making sense of consumer behaviour by reference to groups, social processes, culture, and repeat purchase behaviour (Szmigin & Piacentini, 2018, p. 1). The micro perspective to understanding consumer behaviour takes into consideration the individual consumer and their decision making, learning, attitudes, perceptions, motivation and personality (Szmigin & Piacentini, 2018, p. 1).

In this research, the focus is on the micro factors because the researcher seeks to explore how Covid 19 may have influenced or impacted consumer behaviour in the context of the restaurant industry. A prior research study that explores micro factors for determining consumer behaviour can be taken as an example here to demonstrate how micro factors can be used to explain consumer behaviour (Arsel & Bean, 2013). In this study, the researchers explored consumer behaviour on the basis of sense of taste of the consumers in interior décor; the researchers explored how the improved sense of taste of consumers affect their purchasing decisions on interior design (Arsel & Bean, 2013). In this study, the researchers explored how individuals developed their sense of taste and how this affected their purchasing decisions (Arsel & Bean, 2013). In the current study, the researcher seeks to explore how the fear of personal health and safety may impact the purchase decision making during the Covid 19 pandemic. Therefore, the focus is on a micro factor, that is, fear, and how it affects the decision to dine out for consumers in London city.

Emotion can be a factor that drives consumer behaviour because emotion is an important aspect of consumer decision making (Mitchell, et al., 2005). Emotion has also been used in the marketing research field as one of the factors that can influence consumer behaviour and this includes fear (Mitchell, et al., 2005). In marketing field, fear relates to the risk involved in consumers taking or omitting certain purchasing action (Mitchell, et al., 2005). This can be relevant to how adverts are designed by the marketing managers or how consumers themselves relate to certain purchasing decisions on the basis of fear. Fear is an emotion and when used to understand consumer behaviour, can help explain how consumers base their current purchasing decisions on emotional and not utilitarian context. This relationship between consumers’ decision making process and emotional factors is explained as follows:

“Past decisions, time-related events such as ageing, and external events such as illness or job change lead to lifestyle changes that pose additional consumption problems and result in new purchases, new attitudes and related changes that in turn cause further lifestyle changes. It must be stressed that most consumer problems and their resulting decisions involve very little effort on the part of the consumer. Limited information processing is the norm. Likewise, emotions and feelings play a significant role in consumer behaviour and in the decision process in particular” (Quester, et al., 2007 , p. 19).

As Quester, et al. (2007) note, emotions and feelings play a significant role in the behaviour of the consumer, this study is based on exploring how consumer behaviour may have changed in the Covid 19 pandemic with reference to dining in restaurants and how this change can be explained on the basis of the fear or risk associated with dining in. This can also lead to further exploration of how managers’ responses to health and safety precautions aimed at reducing risk for diners and employees may have led to changes in consumer behaviour. This can be related to the cognitive approach to understanding consumer behaviour because it is based on observed action (behaviour) to intrapersonal cognition on the premise that decision making may be impacted by the role of the individual as an ‘information processor’ and the role of the environment and social experience for consumer decision making (Bray, 2008). In other words, has Covid 19 pandemic led to consumers actively seeking and receiving environmental and social stimuli as informational inputs that drive their internal decision making (Bray, 2008).

Consumer behaviour

Consumer behaviour is said to be a diverse discipline which draws on many theories that relate to human behaviour from different perspectives (Quester, et al., 2007 ). Clinical or experimental psychology research has also helped marketing researchers to apply these concepts to the consumer behaviour field and to learn more about how consumers individually process marketing information (Quester, et al., 2007 ).

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The figure below (figure 1) explains how consumer behaviour can be impacted by multiple influences. These multiple influences can range from the regulatory policy to needs, emotions and values and how these play a role in determining consumer behaviour. In the context of Covid 19 pandemic, some of these factors can be particularly important to understanding how the consumer behaviour towards decisions pertaining to services and goods offered by the restaurant industry in London changed. For example, regulatory policy could be important here because the lockdown was declared by the government as a pandemic response to Covid 19. Due to the lockdown, consumers may have not been able to access restaurant services. Even after the lockdown was lifted, consumer sentiment may have continued to be affected by the previous lockdown and there may have been some changes that could be noted about the consumer behaviour even in the post lockdown phase. In another possible example, it is possible that the pandemic has made consumers more fearful about going out to eat and this may have impacted the level of footfall in the restaurants around London. The discovery of the new Covid 19 strains as potentially being more dangerous and infectious may have added to the fear around going out at this time and research into specific periods of the pandemic may reveal that emotional responses like fear may have affected the consumer sentiment at this time. Other possible factors could be group influences where the use of social media for communicating fear or hesitation to go out or rising threat perception around Covid 19 may have been impactful in making consumers fear going out to eat in restaurants.

 PESTLE ANALYSIS TOOL

Another aspect of consumer behaviour that may be relevant to understanding the responses of the consumers to Covid 19 pandemic in context of restaurant industry is that it is affected by personal and product characteristics and is also situational in nature (Quester, et al., 2007 ). This is demonstrated in the figure below (figure 2).

 PESTLE ANALYSIS TOOL

Considering the situation specific context of the Covid 19 pandemic, it can be noted that the consumers may be impacted in how they perceive and respond to the pandemic in terms of their acceptance or rejection of the products and services offered by the restaurants in London, there may be a situation specific impact of the pandemic. This may be reflected in the lower footfall or preference for the services and products of the restaurants in the time of the pandemic.

Contemporary research on consumer behaviour has been able to identify a wide range of factors that impact the decision making of the consumer and also observe the consumption activities of consumers that go beyond purchasing (Bray, 2008). Consumption activities that may impact the decision making of the consumers can include identification of need, information search, evaluation of alternatives, purchase intention development, purchasing, consumption and even disposal (Bray, 2008). Moreover, consumer behaviour may not even be related only to the behaviour of the consumers and a host of other actors may be involved in the wider process within which we can see how consumer decision making takes place. In this context, the researcher may refer to Solomon, et al. (2012) who note that although a consumer is generally conceptualised as one “person who identifies a need or desire, makes a purchase and then disposes of the product during the three stages in the consumption process” there are in fact many different people are involved in this decision making process, including members of the family, social groups or larger society who may be influencing the way in which consumers make their decisions about how they respond to certain products, brands or services (p. 7). In the context of this research study on Covid 19 impact on consumer decisions, it is possible that consumers’ decision making on dining out in restaurants may have been driven by family members who are scared to eat out or even the government that came out with safety directions from time to time, which also included risks associated with infection contraction from eating in enclosed spaces. On the other hand, consumer decision making may have been influenced in the positive sense by the safety protocols put in by the managers of restaurants for ensuring that the risk of infection from dining in is minimised for their consumers. Therefore, one aspect of this research study would be to explore the role played by different groups or persons, predominantly the restaurant managers and the government, on how consumers perceive issues related to safety in dining out during the Covid 19 pandemic.

Faulkner’s theory on crisis management is useful for assessing the responses of the restaurant industry in London (Faulkner, 2001). Faulkner (2001) argues that the “effectiveness with which the tourism industry in a disaster area handles a crisis, and the degree to which it is prepared for it, has a bearing on how quickly services are restored to normal” (p. 142).

Faulkner (2001) writes about the potential for tourism destinations to experience a disaster of one form or another at any point being a factor that needs to be considered for developing disaster management plans to cope with such eventualities and even draws up a generic model for analysing and developing tourism disaster management strategies. Faulkner’s (2001) model is based on the premise that there is a need for the tourism and hospitality industry to address the continuous threat of crisis that could happen due to natural or manmade reasons. Faulkner (2001) argues that the lack of research on disaster phenomena in the tourism industry needs response and this is the reason why the framework was created to respond to the potential for disaster and crisis. Faulkner (2001) does differentiate between crisis and disaster. The principal difference is that crisis is a situation “where the root cause of an event is, to some extent, self-inflicted through such problems as inept management structures and practices or a failure to adapt to change”, while a “disaster can be defined as “where an enterprise…is confronted with sudden unpredictable catastrophic changes over which it has little control” (p. 136). Therefore, a situation can be described as a crisis or a disaster depending on the scale or the magnitude of the event and the origin of the event (whether from within the organisation or without).

The response to the situation depends, according to Faulkner (2001) on whether it is a crisis or a disaster and the categorisation of the event as on or the other is central to the designing of the response options. Faulkner (2001) emphasises that the crisis demands as the response the need for change to prevent the situation occurring again because the event originated from within the organisation. On the other hand, a disaster requires responses that limit the impacts should there be a repeat occurrence because the event is external to the organisation and while the organisation may not be able to prevent the disaster from happening again, it can minimise the effects or negative impacts of the event by designing a disaster management response (Faulkner, 2001).

There are six stages to the Faulkner (2001) framework. These are: pre-event; prodromal; emergency; intermediate; long term; resolution. The pre-event stage is where the action can be taken to prevent or mitigate the effects of the potential disaster. In this stage, the effort should be to reduce the impacts of disaster. The promordal stage refers to the stage when the disaster is apparently imminent, and as it has not happened but its awareness gives little opportunity for preparation. There may be a “triggering event” that marks the beginning of this prodromal stage. The emergency stage is the stage where the disaster has struck and now it needs to be responded to. According to Faulkner (2001), disasters can be managed better if there are community responses to disasters, which can be done during the period of emergency and even in the recovery period, because the disaster response requires many different organisations. The intermediate phase is the point where the short-term needs of people have been addressed and now the emphasis would be on the restoration of services and the community to normal. The long term phase is a continuation of the intermediate phase and in this phase. The final phase (resolution) is the return to routine, or movement to an improved position through reflection (Faulkner, 2001). The contingency plans to respond to the disaster, are divided into 7 steps by Faulkner (2001): first, identify possible impact and groups at risks; second, assess capability to cope with impact; third, articulate the objective of contingency plan; fourth, identify action necessary to avoid or minimize impact at each stage; fifth, design priority for the prodromal, emergency, intermediate and long-term stages; sixth, ongoing review and revision in the light of experiences; and seventh, any changes in organisation structure (Faulkner, 2001).

Finally, there is a need for operations management discussion in the context of Covid 19 due to the cost of the pandemic on the restaurant industry. The Covid 19 pandemic has led to the unprecedented challenge to the restaurant industry due to the community lockdowns, social distancing, stay-at-home orders, which have affected restaurants in London as many restaurants were asked to limit their operations to only take-outs (Gursoy & Chi, 2020). This brings to the forefront the issue of operations management and whether restaurants have to adopt different strategies to respond the challenges associated with the pandemic. Gursoy and Chi (2020) argue that technology integration and adoption into hospitality operations using artificial intelligence (AI) and social service robot technologies would enable service delivery during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Operations management has been found to be useful for restaurants in Korea where Korean restaurant operations developed more appropriate types of clean safety message framing targeted to consumers who are sceptical to dine-in or order from restaurants (Kim, et al., 2021). These steps are crucial to establishing safety norms for the employees as well as the patrons and can be used by the restaurants to showcase the ways in which they are going to safeguard the interests of the patrons. In the case of the Korean restaurants, an important point is that they were able to develop a message about the safety precautions that they are taking in order to ensure the safety and the health of their patrons.

Covid 19 impact on consumers

One of the studies is by Mason, Narcum, and Mason (2020) and it is related to the American market and the changing consumer behaviour in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic. The study uses survey data from consumers and compared their behaviours pre- and post-declaration of the pandemic and finds that COVID-19 pandemic has altered consumers’ product needs, shopping behaviours, purchasing behaviours as well as their post-purchase satisfaction levels (Mason, et al., 2020). While the study does identify the specific changes in consumer behaviour due to the pandemic, it does not specifically relate to restaurant industry and is based in the United States.

Another study on Covid 19 impact on consumer behaviour evaluates the impact of Covid 19 on consumer behaviour through the consumption displacement theory which explores the shift in consumption when consumers experience a change in the availability of goods, services and amenities to which they are accustomed as the result of an external event (Hall, et al., 2020). This study is based in the Canterbury region of New Zealand and the study is specifically related to the hospitality and retail sector. The study utilises consumer spending data (Hall, et al., 2020). The study finds that there is evidence of increased spending in some consumption categories due to stockpiling behaviours but for the hospitality sector, there is a sharp decline in consumer spending over lockdown (Hall, et al., 2020).

These studies indicate that there is an impact of Covid 19 pandemic on some industries and goods and services. In this research study, one critical question is whether similar impacts have been felt by restaurants in London city or whether the impacts on restaurants are different.

Research Methodology

Research design

Qualitative research method is chosen for the research study. The reason why qualitative method was preferred over quantitative method is because it is driven by flexibility and can be useful for exploring complex and multitiered information and data (Collis & Hussey, 2009). The topic of consumer behaviour in the wake of a pandemic is a kind of research area which demands open and flexible approach so that the researcher is able to conduct a research that can explore multiple narratives and the complexities that are involved in the topic (Creswell, 2013). Quantitative research does not have the benefit of exploring such complex and multi-layered data and for that reason was not chosen by the researcher.

There are many advantages of conducting a qualitative research. Apart from the flexibility in formulating the research design not seen in the more rigid quantitative approach, qualitative allows the researcher to conduct research that is able to probe deeper into complex issues and come up with findings that are able to represent views, opinions and experiences of the participants from a subjective point of view (Willis & Jost, 2007, pp. 53-54). At the same time, there are some disadvantages of qualitative research, which need to be considered by any researcher that is applying this method in their research. First point of concern is the subjectivity of the qualitative data and even analysis methods, which may raise issues of whether there is reliability and validity of the data involved in the research (Perrin, 2015). At the same time, subjectivity in research may also raise question of researcher bias in data collection and analysis (Perrin, 2015). The results and findings of qualitative data may also be doubted because the results are not precise (Perrin, 2015). Furthermore, qualitative research can be unsystematic as compared to quantitative research and for those who desire a more systematic process, qualitative research may not be the appropriate method (Perrin, 2015).

Despite the weaknesses of qualitative research that are discussed above, this method is still preferred in this research because this is the only research design that can allow the researcher to explore data that is multi-layered and complex. It is expected that consumer behaviour towards restaurants in London during Covid 19 pandemic cannot be explained by one or few factors and there are possibly many factors that can explain how the consumers responded to the Covid 19 pandemic in terms of visiting restaurants for meals or not doing so.

This research will have a descriptive as well as an explanatory research design. Descriptive research design aims to represent people, events or situations (Saunders, et al., 2012). Descriptive research does not seek to explain the relationship between variables, but merely reports the descriptive data (Basham, et al., 2016). However, to find out more about how consumer behaviour of people during the Covid 19 pandemic, explanatory research will be used. The purpose of explanatory research is to explain the relationship between variables (Saunders, et al., 2012). Explanatory research is useful because it can help with the explanation of causes and effects (Leavy, 2017). In this research, one part of the exploration is to understand how Covid 19 attributed to lower footfall in restaurants and whether any steps by the restaurants contributed to increasing the footfall during this time. Such steps could be measures related to the safety and health of employees and the patrons of the restaurants.

Participants

The participants for the interviews will be selected on the basis of purposive sampling. Purposive sampling allows the researcher to choose participants on the basis of the characteristics required for objective of the study (Saunders, et al., 2012). In this research, purposive sampling is useful for identifying the managers or employees of the selected restaurants. One limitation of this method can be existence of bias in the selection of participants and may not identify all the contributing factors and characteristics (Leavy, 2017). However, in order to avoid bias, the researcher selected restaurants based on specific locations within London.

Data collection methods

Semi structured interviews with the managers will allow the collection of in-depth information which will result in more accurate results and explanation with respect to their experience with consumer footfall during the time of the Covid 19 pandemic (Saunders, et al., 2012). The primary research data was collected solely through semi-structured interviews. Semi-structured interviews were chosen as a part of the qualitative research design amongst other choices available to the researcher amongst structured, semi-structured and long or in-depth interviews. Structured interviews were rejected because these are too rigid and controlled by the interviewer and impede the free flow of information from the interviewees (Bryman, 2015). On the other hand, long interviews were rejected precisely because these are too free flowing and completely outside the control of the interviewer and this was thought to be inappropriate as the researcher wanted to avoid having copious amount of subjective data (Bryman, 2015). Semi-structured interviews were chosen because while these allow some level of control on the part of the interviewer, there is adequate flexibility and freedom for the interviewee to delve into narratives or bring out ideas or data that the researcher may not have anticipated and provided questions on (Bryman, 2015). Semi-structured interviews are also preferred because of ease of handling, avoidance of severe logistical difficulties, and possibility of having a small group of participants (Willig, 2008, p. 29).

Semi-structured interviews have to be designed with care and planning, because the researcher has to control the interview which can be done by designing a questionnaire in advance which reflects the research questions and the areas that are being probed by the researcher. However, choosing semi-structured interviews also means that the researcher will be open to the possibility of there being more questions that will probe some responses further. Also notable is the fact that semi-structured interviewing depends to a great extent on the rapport between the interviewer and the interviewee and for this, the interviewer should be careful not to abuse the informal environment within which the interview is being set up while also being careful to provide a comfortable environment to the interviewee (Willig, 2008).

The semi-structured interviews for this research lasted between 40 minutes to an hour. The agenda for the interview was set by open-ended questions that were put to the interviewee during the interview and which were set in an interview instrument before the interview was conducted. The information was recorded at the time of the interview, and later transcribed and analysed (Williams, et al., 2014). A consent form was signed by the interviewee before the interview in which the interviewee was informed of the reasons for the research and the ways in which the research will be used by the researcher. This was done for the purpose of taken informed consent from the interviewee. The interviewee was also informed that their personal details and information will not be shared with any third party or in the dissertation report.

Ethical concerns

With regard to the ethical concerns in this research, as it involved interviews, one of the principal concerns was related to free consent of the participants because it is important that if there are any participants involved in the research, their participation is based on their informed and free consent (Crow, 2006). The researcher addressed this concern by undertaking to explain to the participants the purpose and nature of study before obtaining their consent (Crow, 2006). A consent information form was used for this purpose and it contained information about confidentiality of the researcher’s personal information. Participants were also informed through the consent form that they can leave the interview at any time and can refuse to answer any questions (Crow, 2006). The background and the purposes of the study were also informed to the participants (Brinkmann, 2014). The participants were also informed that their confidentiality shall be maintained (Orb, et al., 2001).

Findings

This section of the dissertation reports the findings of the semi-structured interviews through which primary data was collected for this research. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 4 participants who are managers of 4 restaurants in London city.

With regard to the decrease in the footfall in the restaurants when the Covid 19 pandemic was declared by the WHO, as compared to the period before the declaration of the pandemic, the majority of the respondents noted that they did not experience any such decrease in the footfall. One of the respondents noted that they thought that “the pandemic hadn’t been taken seriously enough yet,” (Restaurant B) an observation that was also noted by the manager of Restaurant D who noted that “it wasn’t that bad in London at the time, so fear wasn’t that high.” Interestingly, one respondent did note that there was a worry at the time of the WHO’s statement, “about our restaurant but not surprised when nothing occurred in terms of a decrease in footfall” (Restaurant D). What these responses indicate is that either there was no fear about the pandemic at the time when it was declared by the WHO and even where there was worry in the beginning (as the manager of restaurant D noted), there was no surprise when restaurants continued to be busy despite the pandemic announcement. In other words, the business appears to have continued as usual for the restaurant industry at the time when the pandemic announcement was made by the WHO.

With regard to the impact of the imminent lockdown declaration of the pandemic on the footfall of patrons and if there were more than usual number of patrons or fewer patrons in this period, the respondents have all observed some unusual activity in the period immediately preceding the imminent lockdown in London. The manager of Restaurant A notes that there was hectic activity in this period and also notes an“eerie vibe which was strange” although he did not elaborate further on what that eerie vibe was other than the fact that there were an unusually large number of patrons at this time. The manager of Restaurant B reports that they had an unusual activity of more new walk-ins and not the usual patrons in the restaurant right before the lockdown, chalking this unusual activity to “people wanting to make the most of it before we closed down.” The manager of Restaurant C noted no unusual activity as the “usual patrons were unchanged as to their behaviour and footfall in our restaurant.” The manager of Restaurant D noted no unusual activity in the period immediately preceding the imminent lockdown. An important observation they make is that “no one was that worried or had no idea how bad it was going to be.” What can be surmised with regard to the impact of the lockdown declaration in London is that the activity in the restaurant was unusual with either more new customers showing up and making the best of the time that they had because of a possible uncertainty about how long the lockdown could last.

With regard to the activity of the restaurant in providing delivery services to their patrons during the lockdown person, three of the respondents noted that they offered the service while one noted that they did not provide delivery services. There responses to why they provided or did not provide the services are also interesting in the two respondents who elaborated further on this point. The manager of Restaurant B noted that they provided the delivery services because they “thought that was our only chance of some sense of normality, so we did offer takeaway and delivery services.” On the other hand, the manager of Restaurant C noted that they did not provide these services because they “did not expect that it would last that long, so we just stayed shut and hoped to open again soon.” What can be surmised from these responses is that these restaurants generally preferred to provide the services when they could and for the restaurant that did not offer it, the reason was that they believed that the situation would soon change and they would be back to the usual services. Interestingly, the respondents who provided the delivery services also reported that people continued to order food during the lockdown period from their restaurants. Clearly, the consumer desire for restaurant food continued during the lockdown period and people continued to order food from the restaurants who reported to having delivery services.

With regard to the footfall in the restaurants after the lockdown was lifted, the responses of the four respondents in the study show that the footfall was mostly as usual after they opened for business. However, the responses of the managers are interesting in the insight that they provide into what these restaurants experienced in the first few days after they opened up. The manager of Restaurant A observed that the response in the first few days was “weird because some days it was almost normal but then other times we would be so quiet, it fluctuated and I guess that was because of the uncertainty and fear.” The manager of Restaurant B noted that the response was immediate bookings so much so that they were relieved by the response (suggesting worry about post lockdown response from consumers). The manager of Restaurant C also reported to good footfall and noted that they “had to cut our capacity in half, but it was always fully booked.” The manager of Restaurant D noted that the first few days were quiet but “then things started to pick up again before the next lockdown.” What can be surmised from these responses is that all these restaurants saw a return to normalcy as soon as or few days after they opened up for business again. An interesting point to be reiterated is that at least for one restaurant (Restaurant B) there was some worry about how the consumers would respond to reopening of restaurant after the lockdown was lifted.

With regard to the month or the period in which the restaurants noticed increase in patrons coming to the restaurant in 2020, two of the respondents mentioned July as the month when they noticed some increase in footfall while two others mentioned that it was immediately after they opened up again. Again, the responses provide some additional insight or elaboration of these points. The manager of Restaurant A noted that the increase in footfall only happened “Quite late into July, I think because some people had family members who were more at risk and so due to this, they didn’t venture out too much.” The manager believes that because some family members were at risk, patrons took some time to start coming in to the restaurants. The manager of Restaurant B clearly refers to reaching out to the patrons, which was the reason for their coming back into the “restaurant fairly quickly after lockdown.” The manager of Restaurant C makes an observation that they believe that the response was immediate because “people were eager to get back to normality and finally eat out.” The manager of Restaurant D refers to the safety measures that they put in place by mid-July when they noticed seeing the restaurant like its old self.

With regard to having to close the restaurant due to closure because of spike of internal cases, only one restaurant had to close because of such events. The manager of Restaurant A noted that they “made it clear to all our customers and staff that the rules must be followed. The track and trace system never gave us a call which was crazy thinking about how many cases there were still occurring.” The manager of Restaurant B reported to closing once which led to all staff and chefs having to isolate for 10 days at the beginning of August. This event happened because a family that visited them tested positive a few days after their visit. The manager of Restaurant C noted that they did not have to close but were witness to other “friends in the business had to close several times for up to a week which is a disaster.” The manager of Restaurant D noted that they allowed the staff that felt sick to stay home and did not have to close even once.

With regard to the measures taken by the restaurants for employees’ health and safety during the pandemic, the responses are provided as below because these measures are different for all the restaurants probed, with different steps from face masks to PPE being used by the restaurants.

Restaurant A: Face masks, everyone wore a facemask always, that was the most important. We had other health checks including temperature checks upon arrival and mandatory hand sanitising, we knew our restaurant was clean so as long as staff were careful when arrival, we thought it would be ok. These rules stayed in place during the entire Covid way of life and only ever became stricter, they were never reduced.

Restaurant B: It was the standard health and safety measures for everyone in the industry, hand cleaning, face masks and as much social distancing as possible. This carried on throughout the time we were open.

Restaurant C: We had to cut the number of staff we had on the premises at each time, this was tough. We also used PPE as much as possible and were careful with how we operated. We all knew that the cleaner and safer we were the more likely we could stay open.

Restaurant D: The biggest measure for us was the customers, ensuring that the restaurant was clean, and the tables were always wiped down with anti-bacteria spray was important. Our staff wore face masks and were very professional about it all. I would say that some staff were given warnings about their conduct, but it never occurred twice.

With regard to taking specific measures for delivery facility for making the delivery safer, social distanced deliveries were reported by the respondents of the three restaurants that continued delivery system during the lockdown. The manager of Restaurant A mentioned “Socially distanced drop offs and collections” as the method. Interestingly, the manager of Restaurant B reported that there measures depended on the customer “because some people don’t seem to be bothered by the pandemic anymore and I think this can cause disturbances in how we are doing our job. We try to keep safe and be efficient always.” The manager of Restaurant D noted that they had set up a table outside of the restaurant where they would leave all the food to be collected and then delivered and the only downside of this method was some complaints about food getting cold. What can be surmised is that these restaurants generally followed some protocol based in safety measures for the safety of their employees.

With regard to the respondents’ perceptions about consumer sentiment at different periods of pandemic and if they noticed any specific changes, the responses of the majority of respondents suggest that consumers on the whole had a positive outlook about the pandemic and its impact on their eating out at least for the first lockdown but negative feelings for the second lockdown. The manager of Restaurant A refers to the happiness that people felt when they reopened but the “real change was when the second lockdown was announced that’s when there was a proper feeling of despair. People just couldn’t believe we were going to do it all again.” Similar responses of consumers were noted by the manager of Restaurant B who noted that while there was “positivity shown by everyone throughout the lockdown was great to see, when we finally opened our restaurant, everyone was happy and there was a sense of real accomplishment. This was wiped out when we had to close only a few weeks later.” The manager of Restaurant C also noted the positive attitude of the consumers but also “some real moments of uncertainty and stress particularly once we found out we were going back into a lockdown.” The manager of Restaurant D also noted the difference between the reactions to the reopening after the first lockdown, using the term ‘ecstasy’ to define the reactions of the consumers and the “complete depression when we were told to shut was quite potent. We were lucky to have a summer with customers in the restaurant and we thought this was going to stay the same for the future. Customers just became frustrated with the news of another lockdown and felt that nothing was moving forward.” The responses suggest that there were mixed emotions from the consumers to first and second lockdown.

Discussion

This research has revealed some interesting findings with regard to how consumers reacted to the Covid 19 pandemic with regard to their behaviour towards restaurant industry in London. Restaurants did not witness decrease in the footfall in the restaurants when the Covid 19 pandemic was declared by the WHO, and restaurants continued to host the same level of consumers as compared to the period before the declaration of the pandemic. Applying behaviourism approach, which is based on the link between behaviour and external events, with the latter as driving the former, it can be said that consumers were responding to the external stimuli of the information about the pandemic (Bray, 2008). The cognitive approach which considers that consumers actively seek and receive environmental and social stimuli as informational inputs that then drive internal decision making can also be used here to understand that consumers were not applying the same level of fear that may be expected from them and coming in to dine as they were before (Bray, 2008).

Interestingly, the imminent lockdown declaration of the pandemic led to some unusual activity on the part of the patrons and some participants have reported to having more than usual number of patrons or at times fewer patrons in this period. As such there is some unusual activity in the period immediately preceding the imminent lockdown in London. Irrespective of whether more footfall was observed (which was attributed to people wanting to make the most of it) or fewer people, the description of the participants for this period is generally as unusual activity. Even after the lockdown was lifted, the responses of the four respondents in the study show that the footfall was mostly as usual after they opened for business. Indeed, some participants reported that they saw increase in footfall immediately after opening up for business. This can also be related to cognitive approach and the basing of decision on environmental and social stimuli as informational inputs because it may be posited that consumers were basing their internal decisions to dine based on the lack of fear perception about Covid 19 or social stimuli of other consumers’ behaviour.

One of the findings of this research is that people continued to order food during the lockdown period from their restaurants. This can be attributed to consumer desire for restaurant food continued during the lockdown period and people continued to order food from the restaurants who reported to having delivery services. Fear of the pandemic does not appear to have dimmed the consumer desire to eat out in restaurants despite the declaration of the pandemic. Emotion can be a factor that drives consumer behaviour because emotion is an important aspect of consumer decision making (Mitchell, et al., 2005). Emotion in this context can include fear but may also include desire to experience dining in the restaurant because of the satisfaction of eating out or meeting friends or colleagues. Another aspect of consumer behaviour that may be relevant to understanding the responses of the consumers to Covid 19 pandemic in context of restaurant industry is that it is affected by personal and product characteristics and is also situational in nature (Quester, et al., 2007 ). In this context, it can be posited that the consumers may not be afraid of the pandemic because they are impacted by the personal characteristics of their own lives and are not impacted by the macro factor of the pandemic.

Restaurants have appeared to have taken health and safety precautions seriously at this time and this can be linked to operations management. This may be a reason why only one out of four participants reported to having to close the restaurant due to closure because of spike of internal cases. The findings of the research suggest that a number of measures were taken by the restaurants for employees’ health and safety during the pandemic including use of face mask, temperature checks upon arrival, mandatory hand sanitising, cleanliness in restaurant, and even (for one restaurant) the cutting back of staff on the premises at each time. One restaurant reported to using PPE as much as possible. Similar precautions were extended to specific measures for delivery facility for making the delivery safer, and social distanced deliveries were reported by the respondents of the three restaurants that continued delivery system during the lockdown. Faulkner’s theory on crisis management is useful for assessing the responses of the restaurant industry in London (Faulkner, 2001). Faulkner (2001) argues that the “effectiveness with which the tourism industry in a disaster area handles a crisis, and the degree to which it is prepared for it, has a bearing on how quickly services are restored to normal” (p. 142). In this context, the restaurant industry appears to have quickly adapted to the pandemic by making changes in their safety and health precautions and by adopting measures for ensuring the safety of their patrons and their employees. Restaurants also appear to have followed some of the steps of the contingency plans to respond to the disaster by Faulkner (2001). This included identification of possible impact and groups at risks, assessing of capability to cope with impact, identifying actions necessary to avoid or minimize impact, and ongoing review and revision in the light of experiences (Faulkner, 2001).

One of the most important findings of this study is with regard to perceptions about consumer sentiment at different periods of pandemic and if the participants noticed any specific changes. The responses of the majority of respondents suggest that consumers on the whole had a positive outlook about the pandemic and its impact on their eating out at least for the first lockdown but negative feelings for the second lockdown.

Conclusion

This research was undertaken to answer specific questions related to the impact of Covid 19 on the restaurants in London. In this section, the researcher will conclude the dissertation with the answers to these questions.

With regard to how the pandemic is driving changes to consumer behaviour in the specific context of the restaurant industry in London, this research study found that the consumers were not necessarily impacted by the Covid 19 pandemic in the sense of wanting to dine in restaurants lesser than before. The responses of the consumers to the pandemic declaration as per the participants in this research, suggest that the consumers were just as likely to dine in restaurants even after the declaration of the pandemic and if the consumers’ behaviour changed in the context of eating less in restaurants, it was only because the government imposed a lockdown twice. The findings also suggest that consumers were negatively impacted by the second lockdown in the sense that it made them more worried about what was going to happen.

Faulkner’s theory can be used to explain or understand the changes in consumer behaviour with regard to how responses by the restaurant in terms of safety and health of employees and consumers helped to mitigate the negative impacts of the disaster. According to Faulkner’s theory of crisis and disaster, the stages of emergency through to resolution need community responses as well as responses aimed at mitigating the impact of the disaster. This can be seen in the restaurants of London, where the period of emergency, that is, the actual pandemic declaration and afterwards, saw the management take several steps to mitigate the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic by maintaining certain levels of health and safety precautions for their employees and consumers. The pandemic is not over as yet and therefore, we are not as yet at the resolution stage. Therefore, these steps need to be continued. At the same time, the responses of the community are also visible in the responses of the participants who have noted that the consumers have been supportive of their efforts and are also taking precautions when they come to the restaurants or take delivery of food.

Consumer behaviour theory can be used to understand the changes in consumer behaviour because it can help explain the reasons, motivations, and the patterns related to the purchase decisions of the consumers and it can cover different aspects of such behaviours that are related to the decisions made by the consumers. In this research, the focus was on the micro factors because the researcher was exploring how Covid 19 may have influenced or impacted consumer behaviour in the context of the restaurant industry. In particular, the researcher was exploring how the fear of personal health and safety may impact the purchase decision making during the Covid 19 pandemic. Therefore, the focus is on a micro factor, that is, fear, and how it affects the decision to dine out for consumers in London city. Fear is an emotion that can impact consumer behaviour. In this research, one of the findings was that consumers were not scared of the pandemic when it was first declared and this did not impact their coming into the restaurants to dine. However, fear was a factor for those consumers who were afraid to pass on the infection to vulnerable populations and some participants in this study did point out that those of their regular consumers who were living with someone vulnerable, chose not to dine in. This suggests that for some consumers fear did play a role in determining their behaviour and choices with respect to dining in a restaurant.

One of the areas that was particularly impacted within Hospitality management and Restaurant management is related to health and safety of the consumers and employees. This is one area that the restaurants will be required to continuously focus on not just during the time of the pandemic but possibly beyond because the Covid 19 pandemic makes it more apparent that restaurants and the hospitality industry should be prepared for any such similar future pandemics even after this is resolved.

One of the issues that is relevant to operations management in the restaurant industry in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic is how technology can be used by restaurant industry to address the gaps that are revealed by the pandemic and how future pandemics can be responded to through such technology. One of the findings of this research is that technology and service robots may be useful for restaurant industry as a way to mitigate future negative impacts of this or another such pandemic. Applying Faulkner’s theory here, it can also be said that it is important to formulate disaster management plans based on this pandemic experience for any such future disaster and one of the elements of such disaster management plans can be use of technology and service robots. This can help to manage such future events because pandemics expose the risks involved in human to human contact at the time of the pandemic. If technology is integrated into the restaurant industry, pandemic period can also be dealt with by the restaurants by minimising human contact for the time of the pandemic.

The health and safety of restaurant management and its consumers throughout pandemic is one of the areas that has seen efforts by the restaurants as per the findings of this study. It may be said that by taking such steps, the restaurants have been able to continue doing business by avoiding shut downs and increasing consumer and employee confidence.

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