While we are still deep in the coronavirus pandemic, people wonder how life will look and feel like in the aftermath. There have been major changes in behaviour of businesses and consumers since the beginning of 2020, largely compelled by concerns of people about their health and measures imposed to curb the COVID-19 disease. But it is still difficult at this stage to accurately predict how much of these changes will persist and prevail after the pandemic recedes (possibly during upcoming 2021 with the help of vaccination). The current situation seems so constant and unrelenting, right in the middle of it, that people may struggle to foresee clearly enough the future, and how they will behave individually, through the clouds and mist of COVID-19.
The pandemic is a comprehensive life changing event worldwide. Its impact can be found in multiple areas of the economy (e.g., product availability, retailing, service provision), and consequently through consumers’ responses to the new conditions. In some cases, there were changes in behaviour of consumers, driven by their health worries, that led to actions by businesses in response. Businesses were reacting partly due to their own newly-faced obligations and operational constraints, and with aim to alleviate as much as possible the worries of their customers (e.g., in stores, restaurants, offline and online service channels). It can be reasonably conceived, and is so widely accepted, that matters will not return to the way our lives used to be before the pandemic; some changes to how businesses operate and consumers perform tasks in their lives will stick. The impact is so strong in some areas or aspects, deeply affecting shopping or consumption, that it seems unlikely to be easily erased.
Yet, the ‘new’ ways of doing things may seem so entrenched at the moment, that people may have difficulty seeing how these can change again, and particularly reverse to how things used to be before, at least in part. First, not all changes, such as in digital transformations of services and commerce, are truly new, just accelerated or reinforced by the corona pandemic crisis (e.g., to some estimates, changes leapfrogged 3 to 5 years ahead of time as previously envisioned). Second, things do not have to return to their earlier state because some changes bring real progress and benefits for consumers (e.g., convenience, reliability, speed). Being firmly and emotionally involved with the coronavirus situation, some people may see the impact in some aspects of life over-dramatically when it is not necessarily permanent and irreversible. However, there are others who truly believe and predict the new or modified ways we do things now (e.g., shopping, banking, schooling) will continue and grow after the pandemic, perhaps because they just support the changes. The reality may come out to be somewhere in the middle, and this may also be the way it should.
Major changes have taken place in shopping behaviour on the consumer side and in retailing methods and practices on the business side. Non-store sales (online shopping) hiked, while sales at non-food stores plummeted during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Sales at food stores may have risen a little, but relatively remained stable, simply because consumers could continue to shop at those stores even during lockdowns. The fashion sectors of clothing and footwear suffered mostly in the UK (and probably in many other countries as well). On the other hand, consumers seem to have found more time for home gardening based on their spending levels (“Retail Rethink Playbook”, a joint report by Adobe, Magento, & Internet Retailing, July 2020, UK). Interestingly, the report indicates that online sales of multi-channel retailers climbed (~50%) much more than those of ‘pure play’ online retailers (~10%) year-on-year by May 2020 (i.e., relative to 2019). The online sales of multi-channel retailers jumped-up and surpassed the increase rate of pure-play online retailers particularly since March 2020. It seems that consumers consider it much more convenient, and possibly also safer, to continue buying from retailers they are already familiar with and accustomed to their stores but in another channel than moving to other retailers operating only online.
Consumers shunted a large portion of their shopping activity to the Internet and are engaged much more in ordering their purchases online (Web and mobile). It becomes a necessity when most brick-and-mortar stores are shutdown. But consumers have not given up on visiting stores (e.g., during periods that a lockdown is lifted), and they are not ready always to wait for the ordered products to arrive to their home. Thus, consumers may not shop as usual at physical stores even if they are open (e.g., food stores), but they may prefer to come to a store nearby and pickup an order in person rather than wait for a delivery.
Consumers formed new habits of shopping online, delivery and pickup. It appears to be a smart, flexible and adaptive set of habits suited for different situations, products and services. This is true not only for stores and shops but also applicable to restaurants and coffeeshops (e.g., combining delivery, click-and-pickup, and takeaway options). The combination of online ordering and pickup from a brick-and-mortar store has become a habit as consumers recognise the convenience of such an arrangement. However, consumers are found to assign a greater importance weight now to price versus brand and quality. Manufacturers of consumer goods have had to develop novel supply and delivery options to consumers when their usual distribution channels got blocked or interrupted by corona-related restrictions; the pandemic crisis has generated loyalty challenges particularly for established brands (“Forces of Change: Navigating Seismic Shifts in Shopping”, Glen Kushner, GreenBook Blog, 28 August 2020).
- ‘Forces of Change’ is a multi-party research initiative led by Gen2 Advisors and sponsored by GreenBook (MR Association). It is defined as “A multidisciplinary collaboration between multiple industry leaders to combine research and provide a complete picture of the important changes impacting brands and their relationships with customers” during the Corona pandemic (April 2020).
The partners in Forces of Change emphasise health safety as a key driver of behaviour during these times, and increased awareness to health that will continue to effect human (and consumer) behaviour afterwards. Safety concerns give rise to greater reliance on online shopping and nascent options such as pickup; new payment methods (e.g., contactless mobile-based payment); use of online banking and other financial services (e.g., online account management); and remote medical consultation with doctors and tele-diagnostic tools (i.e., ‘telehealth’ services). The image or perception of brands will be influenced and shaped by a company’s effort to protect safety, respond decisively to the crisis, demonstrating strong purpose and authenticity (e.g., in caring for their customers).
Consumers themselves predict that newly adopted forms of behaviour in shopping and consumption, utilisations of services etc., will continue to be followed in the post pandemic era, and that will be the future state-of-affairs. It pertains especially to the use of digital channels and tools in different domains. But we do not know yet to what extent the changes will have a long lasting impact. On the one hand, consumers have become accustomed to new or modified modes of behaviour, turning into habits; and the longer these habits will be pursued as the Corona pandemic endures, these habits can be expected to become stronger and more persistent. On the other hand, consumers have had many other habits they were used to and even fond of until not long ago (e.g., visiting malls, dining at coffeeshops and restaurants, going to the cinema, travelling). Many of the consumers might feel that they were forced to adopt new habits in response to circumstances and restrictions they could not control. They might still be seeking to return to old habits when possible, particularly if these habits signal a resumption of normalcy and greater certainty as they knew before the pandemic.
Most probably matters will not return to their pre-pandemic state. For instance, the proportion of online sales out of total retail sales in different categories may climb to a new level (e.g., the food and groceries category where online shopping lingered until recently); or the use of online banking may expand with more customers using digital tools more frequently. It is still hard to predict in what new state we will land. Consumers are likely to keep new methods they discovered to have benefits and advantages, but they may very well combine them with restored habits they felt very comfortable with. We will just have to wait and see, hopefully in not longer than a year, until things settle after the pandemic.