As exhaustingly ever-present as it might seem now, COVID-19 will eventually fade. Doors will open, streets will refill, and our paused lives will finally, at long last, resume. But for businesses, resuming operations won’t be as simple as flipping on the lights and leaving an “open” sign in the window.
Since the start of COVID-19, consumer mindsets and preferences have shifted dramatically, imposing new challenges and expectations on businesses that will likely persist even after the panic passes.
“Covid-19 has created a somatic marker in our lives, an emotional bookmark that will forever link us to 2020,” SalesForce CIO Brian Solis wrote in an article for CIO. “Shelter-in-place is changing mindsets, values, beliefs, norms, and behaviors. It’s forging new routines. There’s a permanence to all of this. These human changes set the foundation for the new normal.”
What, then, will characterize our new normal? Early consumer trends indicate three D’s: distance, digital, and delivery. According to Salesforce’s new Global Shopping Index, online consumers drove 20 percent revenue growth in Q1 2020, a metric well-above the 12 percent reported in Q1 2019. This fast-paced expansion outstripped even the 2019 holiday shopping season, which had been viewed as very strong at the time.
True, we could chalk these numbers up as temporary or falsely-representative — the one-time result of panic-buying in the early days of a pandemic. We might even be right to do so. But it would be a mistake to assume that shopping preferences will return to pre-pandemic standards after social distancing regulations relax.
We’re Living in a Quarantine State of Mind
A recent report from the Capgemini Research Institute indicates that the percentage of people who see themselves as having high levels of interaction with online channels has risen significantly since the onset of COVID-19 — and Institute researchers believe that online preferences will only increase with time. But what drives this shift to digital? Are consumers turning to online channels because they have no other option during a pandemic, then staying for the convenience? While that’s undoubtedly one reason, the primary factor is more psychological.
“We’re going to have to work through this quarantine state of mind even when the physical quarantine has lifted,” Sheva Rajaee, founder of the Center for Anxiety and OCD in Irvine, California, told reporters for Vox.
Rajaee makes a case that the coronavirus threat has undermined our confidence and feeling of safety. This psychological impact will leave consumers feeling uncertain and needing extra reassurance and different forms of outreach. Businesses will need to alter their strategies to compensate for these insecurities and build rapport with customers by providing real support, care, and encouragement.
Researchers for McKinsey concur on this viewpoint, writing that: “Particularly in times of crisis, a customer’s interaction with a company can trigger an immediate and lingering effect on his or her sense of trust and loyalty. As millions are furloughed and retreat into isolation, a primary barometer of their customer experience will be how the businesses they frequent and depend upon deliver experiences and service that meets their new needs with empathy, care, and concern.”
McKinsey suggests that businesses that weather this change will be those who can adapt to COVID-caused shifts in consumer behavior. Customer experiences and journeys will need to change — and those changes need to start now.
Fostering Confidence and Trust Must Be a Priority
Emails came in a deluge during the early weeks of a pandemic. Desperate to reassure their customers, countless companies mass-sent messages detailing their COVID-19 response plans to their consumers. These efforts were well-intentioned but often frustrating. While most customers would want to receive updates from their bank or gym, getting an email (or six) from a mini-golf course they visited once, five years ago, probably wouldn’t be appreciated.
Rather than spam potential or current customers with unsolicited information, companies need to strategize their communications. What do consumers want right now? What would be helpful and what would feel reassuring during these trying times?
“Now more than ever, people need extra information, guidance, and support to navigate a novel set of challenges, from keeping their families safe to helping their kids learn when schools are shut down,” writers for the above McKinsey report explain. “They want a resource they can trust, that can make them feel safe when everything seems uncertain, and that offers support when so much seems to be overwhelming.”
How should a company accomplish this? McKinsey recommends paring back the email campaign. “The first step in caring is to reach out—not in marketing or overt attempts to gain a competitive edge, but to offer genuine support.”
This is a time to reinforce company values and show — through actions, not trite emailed words — that a business has its customers’ and employees’ backs.
Take Google as an example. In mid-March, the technology giant announced that it would offer free access to paid Hangouts features to all G Suite and G Suite for Education customers until July 1st. Microsoft is similarly providing a six-month free trial for its premium Teams tool. Both of these gestures demonstrate an understanding of what consumers need right now — easy access to digital communications tools — and a willingness to be generous. Consumers will appreciate and remember these gestures; for some, the thoughtfulness may even spark long-term loyalty.
Consumer Mindsets Have Changed: Prepare for the Shift
Customers are overwhelmingly concerned with health; they need products and services that protect and support wellness goals. This shift isn’t confined to the fitness or wellness sectors, either. In March, the global market research firm Ipsos found that “a healthy configuration” is the top consideration for Chinese car-buyers. Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed believe that this is more important than factors such as vehicle safety, comfort, and price. Consumers want features they may never have even known about before the pandemic, such as AC germ filters and antibacterial interior materials.
The focus on health won’t be a flash in the metaphorical pan, either.
“The concerns about health amplified during the crisis will not ebb after it is over,” a researcher for Accenture wrote in a recent report. “Rather, health will dominate. A health economy will emerge with opportunities for all to plug into. Every business will need to understand how it can be part of a new health ecosystem that will dominate citizen thinking.”
Consumer preferences have shifted because of COVID-19, and they are unlikely to revert when the pandemic ends. Businesses will need to figure out how they can better relate to consumers, pivot their products or service offerings, and provide empathetic customer service. Even when the need for social distancing disappears, and we return to ordinary life, the coronavirus’s psychological impact will continue to shape consumer behavior. As company leaders, we need to understand how we can support customers through their quarantine state of mind — now, and in the future.