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Consumer Prioritization of Needs During COVID-19

By Grant Alexander Wilson, Ph.D.

Faculty Member
Department of Management and Marketing Edwards School of Business University of Saskatchewan

Author Bio

Dr. Wilson is a faculty member of the Department of Management and Marketing at the Edwards School of Business, University of Saskatchewan. He teaches marketing, strategic management, entrepreneurship, and technology commercialization courses. His current research interests include marketing, consumer economics, entrepreneurship, and organizational learning.


According to the World Health Organization (2020), the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is classified as an infectious disease caused by “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).” Identified in late 2019 in the city of Wuhan, Hubei, China, COVID-19 has rapidly spread throughout the world. Symptoms of COVID-19 include, but are not limited to, fever, cough, and shortness of breath (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020). At the time this article was written, COVID-19 cases exceeded 1.28 million and were responsible for nearly 70,000 deaths (Center for Systems Science and Engineering, 2020; Linnane, 2020). Beyond its unprecedented health and social implications, COVID-19 has had catastrophic effects on the global economy.


According to the World Economic Forum (2020), between January and March 2020, the world economy contracted by 12%. In response to this economic crisis, G20 governments have pledged over $5 trillion in relief and stability initiatives. According to Moody’s Chief Economist, Mark Zandi, COVID-19 “is a natural disaster. There’s nothing in the Great Depression that is analogous to what we’re experiencing now.” As such, every country, institution, industry, sector, business, individual, and all aspects of the global economy are directly or indirectly negatively impacted by COVID-19.


As of April 6, 2020, there were 15,433 confirmed cases and 277 COVID-19 related deaths in Canada (National Post, 2020). One week after the majority of businesses closed across Canada, nearly one million people took to the Government of Canada’s Employment Insurance website to file applications (Alini, 2020). Similar to other G20 countries, the Government of Canada unveiled an initial aid package of $82 billion (Russell, 2020). The package includes $27 billion emergency aid designed to help Canadians pay for essentials such as rent and food (Russell, 2020). With over four million Canadian individuals and families living in rental properties, the Government of Canada recognized the importance of including explicit funding to meet the needs of renters. Although there is “no federal guidance on the matter, provincial governments have offered various forms of rent relief to residents” (Forani, 2020). According to Alini (2020) and as of March 31, 2020, few provinces enacted rent support programming and all provinces expect tenants to pay upcoming rent (Table 1). However, some provinces have suspended rent increases to varying degrees (Alini, 2020).

Even Saskatchewan, where missed rent penalties are lessened, the government has explicitly stated that tenants will be required to pay back any and all rent in full (Alini, 2020). Similarly, in Alberta the government has instructed landlords and tenants to engage in “reasonable efforts to enter into meaningful payment plan[s]” (Government of Alberta, 2020). According to the Government of Alberta (2020), “reasonable efforts could include the requirement that a landlord accept a payment plan that considers the tenant’s financial circumstances.” Like Saskatchewan, the Government of Alberta expects that such meaningful payment plans result in the full repayment of any and all missed rent (Government of Alberta, 2020). Irrespective of province, territory, rent support programs, or rent repayment plans, experts urge that tenants should be in regular communication with one another (Mitchell, 2020). Moreover, if the dialogue has not been started, now is the time (Mitchell, 2020). The federal and provincial message has come through loud and clear, suggesting that no one is “off the hook” for paying their rent. Although COVID-19 has brought about unprecedented unemployment and financial insecurity, it is not the first time that individuals have faced challenges with respect to fulfilling some of their most basic needs.


In times of crisis, it is essential for individuals to differentiate needs versus wants. According to Armstrong et al. (2013), “needs are states of felt deprivation. They include basic physical needs for food, clothing, warmth, and safety; social needs for beckoning and affection; and individual needs for knowledge and self-expression” (p. 7). Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs define five types of needs and assembles a hierarchy related to an individual’s pursuit of their fulfillment (Figure 1). Physiological needs, defined as a requirement of human survival, include homeostasis, health, food, water, shelter, etc. (Maslow, 1943). Safety and security, defined as both physical and economic, includes personal security, emotional security, financial security, etc. (Maslow, 1943). Love and belonging, described as social belongingness, includes friendships, intimacy, love, family, etc. (Maslow, 1943). Self-esteem needs, or ego and status needs, concentrate on individuals’ status, recognition, respect, etc. (Maslow, 1943). The pinnacle of Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs is what he describes as self-actualization. Self-actualizing refers to an individual’s ability to become the best version of themselves. According to Maslow (1953) “what a man can be, he must be” (p. 91).

Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy suggests that each need type (e.g. physiological) is a prerequisite of the subsequent need type (e.g. safety). This means one cannot begin to fulfill safety needs without meeting their basic physiological needs. Other prominent psychologists such as Alderfer have argued that this is an oversimplification and humans can simultaneously attempt to fulfill a variety of need types. Specifically, Alderfer (1969) conceptualized ERG theory based on the works of Maslow. ERG theory collapses Maslow’s (1943) hierarchies and presents three need groups (existence, relatedness, and growth) of which can be jointly pursued (Figure 2). Despite the differing perspective on their pursuit, Alderfer (1969) clearly concurs with Maslow (1943) affirming existence needs are essential and non-negotiable.

Unlike needs, wants are “shaped by culture and individual personality” (Armstrong et al., p.7). As such “customers want the next iPhone but this product services the latent need of connectivity, communication, and access to information (Swanson & Wilson, 2020, p. 39). The distinction between needs versus wants is crucial, especially in time of financial constraint. Historically, in times of economic downturns, recessions, and depressions, individuals have been strategic and focused on fulfilling their needs as opposed to their wants, thus supporting both Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs and Alderfer’s (1969) ERG theory.


Consumer behaviour changes drastically in times of crisis (e.g. recessions). According to Starr (2011), consumer spending on unmet needs such as food, shelter, and health care generally rise during recessions. Consumers, both employed and unemployed, are typically concerned with covering the basics such as rent, mortgage payments, groceries, utilities, and medications in recessions (Starr, 2010). Bohlen, Carlotti, and Mihas (2010) describe how recessions provoke need-centric spending. As such, consumer spending shifts from purchasing expensive wants to the fulfillment of existential needs (Bohlen, Carlotti, & Mihas, 2010). Typically, the want-driven consumer spending normality returns post-recession (Bohlen, Carlotti, & Mihas, 2010). Generally speaking, consumers have been historically strategic by focusing on spending their limited financial resources on the essentials.

Reed and Crawford (2014) examined consumer spending in situations of economic booms, recessions, and recoveries. Their findings suggest that during recessions, the relative importance of food made at home increases, the purchase of durable goods decreases, and the relative importance of paying rent increases. This data supports psychology theory that purports physiological need fulfillment should be, and is, the primary concern of consumers. Ganong and Noel (2019) provide further empirical support for similar consumer spending patterns in their study of 27,740 U.S. households that exhausted their unemployment benefits (Table 2). Even when families deplete unemployment income, physiological needs are the first to be met.

As shown above (Table 2), home improvement, retail, restaurant, and auto repairs all contract by double-digit percentages. Although consumer spending on telephone, utilities, essential goods, and insurance decrease, it is marginal and significantly less than non-essentials. In general, and rightfully so, consumers are more cautions spenders in recessions (McCarthy, 2007). Moreover, consumers have thought of the long-term implications of their spending and strategically allocated funds to their physiological needs.


COVID-19 is likely to be the catalyst of a sustained global financial crisis with some of the most significant implications on record. Although governments are supporting individuals, families, businesses, and communities alike, they have been definitive that consumers will be accountable for their actions in these unprecedented times. Specifically, provincial governments in Canada have made it clear that renters are obligated to pay their rent. If not immediate, in the near future. However, governments recognize their role as a support system for those that cannot fulfil their basic needs. Specifically, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island have provided financial support for renters. Other governments need to be willing to do the same to ensure basic needs are fulfilled. As stressed by several provincial governments, landlords and tenants should be open to, and engage with one another about, meaningful payment plans. Landlords must continue to provide, safe, clean, and peaceful spaces for their tenants. Consumers should be making careful considerations with respect to spending and fulfilling needs versus wants. As historical empirical evidence suggests, consumers have been smart and made long-term strategic decisions about their spending. As the old psychology adage says, “the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour,” suggesting we would be wise to emulate our past decisions moving forward. The look ahead is anything but certain, however it is obvious that for the longevity of the system, governments, landlords, and tenants need to act collectively.

The time is now, let’s work together.


Alderfer, C. P. (1969). An empirical test of a new theory of human needs. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 4(2), 142-175.

Alina, E. (2020, March 24). Coronavirus: Nearly 1 million Canadians applied for EI last week. Global News.

Armstrong, G., Kotler, P., Trifts, V., Buchwitz, L. A., & Gaudet, D. (2013). Marketing: An Introduction (6th Canadian ed.). Toronto: Pearson.

Bohlen, B., Carlotti, S., & Mihas, L. (2010). How the recession has changed US consumer behavior. McKinsey Quarterly, 1(4), 17-20.

Center for Systems Science and Engineering (2020). Coronavirus COVID-19 global cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at John Hopkins University (JHU).

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Cohan, P. (2020). How COVID 19 crunch compares to the Spanish Flu, Great Depression.


Forani, J. (2020, April 1). First of the month: Tenants scramble to pay rent during COVID-19 pandemic. CTV News.

Ganong, P., & Noel, P. (2019). Consumer spending during unemployment: Positive and normative implications. American Economic Review, 109(7), 2383-2424.

Government of Alberta. (2020a). Information for tenants and landlords.

Linnane, C. (2020, April 6). COVID-19 cases tally: 1.28 million cases globally, 69,555 deaths. MarketWatch.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. Harper, New York.

McCarthy, J. (1997). Debt, delinquencies, and consumer spending. Current Issues in Economics and Finance, 3(3), 1-6.

Mitchell, D. (2020, April 1). “Communication” key for Hamiltonians who can’t pay rent during COVID-19 pandemic. Global News. pay-rent-coronavirus/

National Post. (2020, April 5). COVID-19 provincial breakdown in Canada: 15,443 cases and 277 deaths as of Sunday.

Reed, S., & Crawford, M. (2014). How does consumer spending change during boom, recession, and recovery? U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, 3(15), 1-6.

Russell, A. (2020). Coronavirus: How the Trudeau government and provinces are helping renters. Global News. provinces-renters/

Starr, M. A. (2011). Recession and the social economy. In Consequences of Economic Downturn (pp. 189-214). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Swanson, L. A. & Wilson, G. A. (2020). Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Technology Management. University of Saskatchewan.

World Economic Forum. (2020). 5 charts that show the global economic impact of coronavirus.


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