What will the world of commerce be like after the COVID-19 Crisis? 

There’s an expression based on an apocryphal Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times”. The chaos and unpredictability of interesting times can be a nightmare for consumer businesses across sectors, and this has been one of the most interesting times for business in living memory.

With COVID-19, everything has changed, and every brand has the same question: Consumer behavior is shifting drastically, but what will ‘stick’ post-pandemic?

At buzzback, we’re obsessed with such changes in consumer behavior – who they are and how they live and feel, and COVID-19 has only amplified our obsession. We are running several concurrent studies, including a weekly tracker, to uncover how COVID-19 will impact consumers, and importantly our clients.

Some key themes:

Our data shows that although we are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel, more than two-thirds of consumers in the US still estimate the pandemic will impact them for at least another five months, and more than three quarters are still concerned about the potential of a second wave. This will have an impact on what they buy and how they approach brand loyalty.

As a result, clients across every sector are trying to figure it out – some racing to research to get ahead of consumer shifts, and others pausing because they fear the consumer’s mindset is different and it’s not the right time to do research.

Here are additional broad stroke changes we are witnessing, evidenced across our work:

  • Food & Beverage– Alcohol & snacking has been on the rise. It may be no surprise to know alcohol consumption has rocketed during the lockdown, with 42% consumers stating they are drinking more than usual. Our research found 40% are drinking more on weekdays, 30% have started drinking earlier in the day and 30% admit having more alcohol at home is leading to more drinking. Key triggers include alleviating stress and boredom and negative thinking. Interestingly for brands, consumers seem to be getting more experimental, with 30% trying new types of alcohol and 30% trying new brands.

Snacking and eating habits during lockdown have a similar profile to alcohol, with 47% US consumers stating they are snacking more during COVID-19. More than half are snacking more often during the day and admit having more snacks at home has led to more eating. For brands it’s important to outline that more than a third of consumers are focused on price and buying more, but less expensive, snacks. Like alcohol, snacking triggers are centered around a kind of restlessness with more than a third of consumers eating more snacks out of boredom, and 18% to keep themselves happy. Top choices include cookies, chips, and ice cream, with around a third eating these types of food, followed closely by cheese, candy and chocolate.

  • Financial Services– more than three in five are worried about their finances, with around a third also worried about their jobs. Their attention and concerns have shifted to saving and thinking about the future, and they desire brands that can be ‘consultative’ and provide guidance for these financial needs. This concern dominates all sectors and purchases.

Says one consumer: “I feel as though I’m on a daily treadmill to continue earning money to pay for essentials. I also feel that I’m having to watch my finances closely so as not to run into problems. Above all, it’s a question of balancing income and expenditures carefully”

  • Technology – more than half are using video to connect, both personally and for work, and they expect this to continue as their need to keep close ties with others is essential. They need strong partners (brands) for services, with greater reliability and other services to better stay in touch and provide entertainment (content, streaming).
  • Travel – travel, and hospitality have been especially hard hit, as we all know. Consumers, however, are still optimistic about planning future trips, but short-term, local will rule. That means to travel via cars, frequenting local venues for meals & socializing primarily. Those are ‘safer’ alternatives in consumers’ minds.

And when they do get back to trips, they will look for deals, plus importantly, cleanliness, disinfecting, and sanitizing are expected in all venues – brands will need to deliver and reassure on this as cost of entry.

  • Shopping – they will continue to purchase cleaning and sanitizing products and get ahead of stockpiling so as not to be left short with no supplies – probably no surprise. More than half say they are sanitizing everything that enters their homes. And importantly, they also remain frugal, as evidenced in their concern about finances, they will be selective about purchases and may gravitate to value-brands vs former loyalties.

Some say e-commerce has leaped forward decades as a result of COVID-19 and more and more will be purchased online in the future. Says one consumer “I have decided to avoid shops all together in favor of online shopping, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed I can do that until things get back to normal…”

  • Healthcare– what was once skepticism around virtually connecting with healthcare providers is now more accepted and becoming more of the norm. Only around 1 in 10 used telehealth services at the start of the pandemic, but more than 60% say they will increase usage going forward. The need to ‘stay in touch’ and ‘stay connected’ with practitioners and they will adapt to both online and in-person visits. And importantly, more than half also say they will require mental health professional services, as fear, isolation and other emotions linked to COVID-19 have impacted their daily lives. We are already seeing brands start to market aggressively around this increase as sleep aids, calming, wellness, and other related services have become more prevalent to target these mental health concerns.

Defining the ‘Next Normal’:

So, what next? The new normal has become ‘the next normal’ in terms of how rapid changes in consumer behavior are impacting brand experiences. In short, brands need to build trust bridges.  As businesses begin to reopen globally, and consumers and clients try to get back to some semblance of what they perceive as normal, we expect there to be some prevalent themes for all brands (across all sectors):

  • Safety & hygieneis the new currency – it has to be cleaned, sanitized, and disinfected and provide consumer assurance to support this. Whether it’s travel accommodations or Amazon deliveries, consumers will support those purchases and behaviors that adhere to their needs. They will want to ‘feel safe’ with demonstrated reassurance of this. Safety & hygiene needs to be part of every brand’s consideration – even if it’s how they interact with their employees.
  • Valueis a new obsession making it harder for brands to sustain premium positions and long-term loyalty. Brands need to consider how consumers are making choices in their category, and what the trigger points are around driving behavior.
  • Empathy still rules– consumers don’t want to see another sappy TV commercial with somber piano music and hear ‘we’re in this together.’ There is a YouTube video floating around with how all COVID-19 ads look the same. Now is the time for brands to figure out how to empathize and stand out from the crowd. This probably means more research – of course! – or at least greater empathy to anticipating their consumer needs, including loyal and lapsed users to build greater loyalty.

About the Author

As the Founder and CEO of buzzback, Carol Fitzgerald is an experienced senior-level executive with proven success in the management of both established and start-up companies. buzzback just celebrated its 20th year, realizing a vision for changing how consumers interact with marketers online, and focusing on making the research experience fun, engaging, and intuitive.

Its clients include the top 100 global FMCG, healthcare, and technology/financial services, dedicated to innovation and growth. Over the years, buzzback has repeatedly garnered a spot on the Crain’s 100 Best Places to Work in NYC list as well as 2 years on the GRIT Top 50 Most Innovative Companies list. Carol is a recipient of the Enterprising Women of the Year and International Women’s Entrepreneurial Challenge Foundation awards, both of which highlight her strong dedication to helping those in her community and female business owners through education, access, and mentorship opportunities.