Pandemics are not exactly a novel phenomenon strictly related to the current modern societies as they were recorded since ancient times. Each pandemic triggered major changes in economics, regional and global policies, social behavior, and citizens’ mentalities as well. The most significant changes (which have been preserved over the medium term and long term) have been those institutionalized [1
]. By contrast, the changes which were least preserved are related to mentalities and social behavior as the institutionalized modifications [2
], through public policies, were not sufficiently coupled and consolidated with the psychosocial changes [3
]. Like any other pandemics, COVID-19 has caused significant changes on all levels of contemporary society [4
]. All states; continents; regions; urban and rural communities; families; and ultimately, thinking and lifestyle of each individual have been impacted by the pandemic [10
], and we may never return to the normality previously experienced before COVID-19 [15
At the same time, each pandemic in recorded history had immediate effects on the primary reactions of the social human, because they affected directly health, financial security, life quality and food security [17
]. For instance, when cholera or the Spanish flu hit, the economic balance and food supply systems broke and caused famine as an immediate effect [18
]. The COVID-19 pandemic has largely fit the same profile, although there are specific differences. This time there have not been major negative effects on food security recorded, except for the underdeveloped and developing countries. Meanwhile, developed economies have not faced serious problems in terms of global food security [19
]. Inherently, there were individual problems, especially in the case of quarantined people with low and very low income [21
]. Nevertheless, the concern for food security has turned into concern for food safety as the public focus of developed countries transitioned to issues such as healthy eating.
However, all pandemics share the demographic vector of disease spread. During the Middle Ages, the pandemic would be transmitted from one part of Europe to another by the people who fled the outbreak [18
]. The Amerindian population were decimated by the diseases brought by the European explorers, as they lacked any inherited immunity to the infectious diseases of Europe (in this case, Tzvetan Todorov says that the first globalization was the spread of the viruses [22
]). The Spanish flu spread mainly due to the movement of soldiers from the WWI (as they came home back in 1918, they spread the pandemic globally) [23
]. The COVID-19 pandemic has been largely triggered by population density [24
], high degree of mobility of humans, and mass socialization, as well as cultural, social, and tourism events [26
]. Consequently, the measures taken by most world states have addressed issues such as quarantine and isolation, more precisely the enforced social isolation of the population along with the economic isolation between various states or regions as well as between different economic sectors [29
]. Hence, this lockdown has impeded the interactions among food systems incorporating every stage of food production and delivery.
If we are to look into Romania’s case, several differences between COVID-19 and the other pandemics should be emphasized. For instance, the Spanish flu, by its direct and indirect effects (which are quite difficult to assess), overlapped the lack of organizational deficiencies of the primary sector, at that time the fundamental branch for achieving the national income (a statistical indicator of the period which is equal to GDP). During the census of 1930, Romania estimated that approximately 50% of material production was provided by the rural population. Therefore, under the circumstances where nearly three quarters of the population were working in agriculture, it is understandable that the Spanish flu had a catastrophic effect on the civil population and army and contributed to the disruption of economic activities. Additionally, during that period, most of Romania’s population had a diet which could be regarded as unbalanced by comparison with the inhabitants of Western Europe. More precisely, monophagous or excessive consumption of cereals had largely contributed to the aggravation of effects of the Spanish flu due to among other factors, a weakened immune system. However in Romania, the COVID-19 pandemic has occurred in a totally different socioeconomic context from the Spanish flu [30
On the 14 March 2020, the president of Romania signed the Decree that enforced into law the “state of emergency” for a period of 30 days as of the 16 of March. In this context, the agri-food sector was the first being targeted by the provisions of the Military Ordinance no.1, which drastically limited the activities of public alimentation. Another essential aspect of this military ordinance is granting permission to direct customer delivery in the case of agri-food products. This legal permission provides a favorable context for developing short food supply chains, for Romanian small producers. Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of clients has significantly diminished in hypermarkets and supermarkets, while the convenience stores, butcher shops, and grocery stores have gradually gained more popularity. At the same time, the small producers have seized the opportunity of home delivery for reaching their final customers [33
Due to increased number of confirmed cases in Suceava and its neighboring localities, the total quarantine was deemed necessary and consequently imposed. To further understand the seriousness of this outbreak, the following clarification is necessary: this area has often been referred to as the “Romanian Lombardy”, a suggestive comparison with the region from northern Italy which was severely affected by COVID-19 [34
]. Consequently, on 30 March 2020, the Military ordinance no.6 was adopted regarding implementing total quarantine measures on Suceava municipality and its neighboring localities as shown in Figure 1
Suceava county covers an area of 8553.5 km2
, while the quarantined area is 409.4 km2
. The quarantined area is bordered by Suceava municipality (52.1 km2
), Salcea town (55.6 km2
), and the communes of Adâncata (38.6 km2
), Bosanci (49.6 km2
), Ipotești (22.8 km2
), Moara (41.9 km2
), Șcheia (58.3 km2
), Pătrăuți (37.7 km2
), and Mitocu Dragomirnei (52.9 km2
]. The population of Suceava county was 764,123 inhabitants (3% of Romania’s population) on 1 January 2020. Approximately 25% of Suceava’s population live in the quarantined area, having an irregular territorial distribution (Table 1
Almost 73% of the quarantined population from Suceava county lives in urban area (67% in Suceava municipality and 6% in Salcea town). The population distribution of age groups, in the quarantined area is as follows: 23% of the population is under 20 years old, 21% is between 20 and 34 years old, 24% ranges between 35 and 49 years old, 19% is between 50 and 64 years old, and 13% is over 65. Therefore, nearly 64% of the population is included in the category of active population (20–64 years old).
Based on the sociocultural characteristics mentioned above, we have worked on the assumption that there are direct correlations among the state of exception induced by quarantine, behavioral changes in the direct purchase of fresh vegetables from producers, and digital transformation of short food supply chains (SFSC). Therefore, the main objective of this research was to identify the possible behavioral changes of the consumers during the COVID-19 crisis, particularly of those customers who bought fresh vegetables with direct delivery. The second objective lies in identifying the possible effects of these behavioral changes on the digital transformation of SFSC.
There are numerous researchers who have already insisted on the consequences brought by pandemics on the economy, especially on the product distribution systems [70
]. Some of these support the idea that such sanitary crises were followed by economic growth as a direct consequence of the increases in consumption [76
], while others say that on the contrary, the effects are negative for the human activities [78
], especially for agriculture [81
]. When it comes to the current pandemic, Carlsson-Szlezak [82
] argue there are three types of effects COVID-19 has had on consumption, the market, and distribution chains. This the main reason why we think that the food distribution systems should be redesigned to strengthen resilience in the future to address the complexity of contemporary society [84
In this context, purchasing fresh vegetables from local producers based on order and direct delivery comes up with a series of advantages, including the fight to reduce the spread of contamination with the new coronavirus. However, consumers avoid shopping at grocery stores, farmers’ markets and/or supermarkets which were often crowded during the pandemic. Social distancing is respected and contact with unknown, possibly infected people is avoided.
To increase local food production and sales in Romania, small local producers need to adhere to shifting customer preferences and innovate their marketing strategies. Cultivation of native varieties, connecting with the local features and measures for environmental protection can constitute advantages for promoting local products in the national agri-food sector. If we take into account the high degree of internet infrastructure development, the e-commerce development of vegetable farmers and virtual farmers’ markets or platforms can also represent solutions for developing businesses in the short food supply chains in times of crises and beyond.
Based on the analyses run in this study, a series of general recommendations stand out for local producers. First, it is advisable for agricultural producers to adjust payment methods to consumers’ demands by purchasing mobile POS systems as well as to develop their own brands and products with an integrated promotion (in analog and digital system). At the same time, and of equal importance, it is imperative for producers to implement up-to-date technologies for placing online orders by developing their own specialized websites and social media. Additionally, innovative marketing and planning of the distribution should be made in accordance with the customers’ demands and short food supply chains. Last but not least, local producers could associate in cooperative organizations for a better access to the market.
For business development, certain limitations need to be taken into consideration. First, supply of fresh vegetables directly from local producers cannot be achieved in Romania throughout the calendar year due to the seasonal nature of crops and reduced areas designated for greenhouses or poly tunnels [88
]. The quantities and vegetable varieties locally produced and available on the market are reduced due to their zonal and seasonal nature, and consequently, the demand cannot be exclusively covered by local production [88
]. Another key factor is the final price of the product, as the price of the local vegetables sold through SFSCs is regularly higher than the prices of similar products in the hypermarket networks [90
]. To address these issues and come up with viable solutions, the producers could follow the successful associative models from Western Europe thus gaining more visibility and authority in the marketplace. However, the reticence of Romanian small producers is a common denominator when it comes to associating and cooperating locally, including making a common brand, which cannot but become a hindrance for penetrating the local market [92
In Romania, the digital transformation of small producers can have a positive effect for the entire economy. However, the digital transformation is also influenced by certain local factors. For instance, to develop distribution channels, small producers need to invest in infrastructure. Nevertheless, their financial possibilities are rather limited, and they choose to invest in means of production at the expense of infrastructure for commercialization and marketing [95
]. Furthermore, many small enterprises are in dire need of time, another impediment for digital transformation as they allot most of their activities to production and bringing products to market. Additionally, the scarce digital literacy of agricultural producers is a barrier preventing and limiting the development of the these innovative marketing instruments [96
Concurrently, we strongly encourage the consumption of fresh vegetables directly purchased from producers and the development of short food supply chains (SFSCs), which bring a series of benefits to the consumers. Typically, local products distributed by SFSCs have superior nutritional value and favorable impacts on people’s general condition and health. Using SPSCs now and into the future can result in indirect economic benefits to consumers by retaining capital locally, which, in turn, has a multiplying effect within the regional economy (maintaining and creating jobs, reinvested profit in productive activities, duties and taxes for the local revenue, etc.) Additionally, the acquisitions made within the SFSCs contribute to environmental protection and hence improve the life quality, especially in urban areas, not to mention the fact that the purchase of fresh vegetables directly from local producers on a regular basis tackles the issue of food waste. Moreover, by consuming local fresh vegetables, the consumer brings his/her own contribution to the preservation of local tradition and identity (local gastronomy, local varieties of vegetables, rural culture, circular rural economy). Finally, the direct delivery of fresh vegetables saves time for consumers by reducing the time spend on purchasing food.
Our results confirm the hypothesis that the COVID-19 pandemic induced significant changes in consumer purchasing behavior of fresh vegetables. Consequently, consumers are more determined to place online orders of fresh vegetables directly delivered by producers. Prior to enforcing the state of emergency, 12% of the respondents from the quarantined area of Suceava chose the online purchase of fresh vegetables directly delivered by producers. An increased percentage of the respondents (60%) have stated that they intend to adopt this system of buying from short food supply chains (SFSCs) following the COVID-19 crisis.
The preference of consumers for digital instruments of gathering information, ordering, and payment proves that the changes in consumer buying behavior are not merely visible in the purchase intention within this distribution system, but also in their wish for digital transformation of SFCSs. The fact that 95% of the respondents have declared that they prefer a personal selection of the products shows that they choose to involve directly and emotionally in the process of selection and purchase. This is a feature that has not undergone any changes in the timeline determined by the period before March 16, after this date, and after emerging from the COVID-19 crisis.
On the other hand, this study reaches the conclusion that producers should develop their own distribution instruments in a novel manner and by taking into account the preferences shown by the Romanian buyers for high-frequency purchases (weekly or once every two weeks). Thus, SFSCs represent a viable solution to the pandemic, since in Romania’s current context, the reliability and safety of the conventional pattern of agricultural production has been brought into question. Last but not least, to be able to run their businesses under normal circumstances as well, producers should adjust their business philosophy without any delays, in terms of digital transformation, implementation of innovative solutions of distribution addressed to SFSCs, customer communication improvement, and a more appealing presentation of their online product offer [97
]. One of the limitations of this scientific investigation is tied to the current preliminary study of just the quarantined area of Suceava. The quarantine of Suceava municipality and its neighboring localities has been the main reason for the geographic limit of our current research. Given the previously mentioned limitations, the results of our study will add to the growing body of research on short food supply chains conducted nationwide in Romania as well as globally.