Aarron Toal, PhD Candidate, explores what the future may hold for consumers after COVID-19.
Before the lockdown it was panic. During the lockdown we faced rationing and restriction. What lies in store for consumers when we take that one small step back onto the high street? Will it be in the same condition that we left it? Will consumers, so used to restriction and isolation, embrace the reunion of this long lost relationship with open arms?
Consumer behaviour is changing and continues to do so on a weekly basis. Some interesting recent highlights:
- The sale of elastic has increased by 1430% as people make their own protective facemasks at home.
- Online stores see reduced traffic at 5pm as many of us watch Downing Street’s daily COVID-19 briefing.
- Online orders of toys and books increase at 8.30pm as parents look for more ways to keep their children entertained.
Which behaviours are temporary and which are here to stay with us, are the insights everyone is searching for.
The in-store shopping experience is dead, at least for the time being, as consumers continue to face rule and regulation. What was once the pinnacle in the customer journey to experience the touchpoints of brand and product has now been replaced with regimented social distancing, one-way systems and the imposing yellow and black tape controlling where to stand or which direction to walk in. With social distancing forecast to dictate the in-store experience for the foreseeable, shopping out of necessity instead of pleasure will likely continue.
With lockdown rules relaxing, it is possible we will see consumers split into two groups: those who have become more health conscious and unwilling to venture out into crowded shopping centres or retail parks as threats of a second wave still loom heavy, where retailers must reassure their customers are safe by entering the store, or those fed up with restriction and exile and jump at the chance to integrate themselves back into society in the search for some previously taken-for-granted normality.
Lockdown forced the majority of us online and as such, into new online shopping habits. Not only were we battling with each other in shopping aisles, we were also engaged in a more virtual shopping arena, trying to secure the coveted yet elusive online delivery slot. Emotions run high too, as we become euphoric when a delivery arrives with minimal substitutes, or livid when an item becomes lost or delayed and are met with the excuse of “it’s COVID-19’s fault” when experiencing poor customer service.
The reliance of e-commerce by those stuck inside has proven to be a vital lifeline to acquire even the most basic of products. Older shoppers particularly face more restriction than most, however now that they have successfully bridged the digital divide, previously reluctant groups have now embraced online shopping behaviours.
Some initial behaviours such as panic buying have decreased, but the importance of e-commerce will likely be the lifeblood to many retailers. Those who rely on footfall within their bricks and mortar stores face challenges of social distance-proofing but also how to lure consumers off the internet and out of their homes. Initiatives like click and collect to get customers back into the high street may prove valuable.
Physical entertainment spaces such as restaurants, cinemas or leisure centres have all but ceased to exist, replaced with online equivalents. Restaurants have been replaced with home cooked meals as many try to replicate the going out experience by staying in, cinemas have been replaced by apps like Netflix and Disney+, and gyms or leisure centres replaced by online tutorials and demonstrations. The experience may result in consumers asking themselves if they really need that expensive gym membership or a cinema loyalty card when normality resumes, especially as another recession lies on the horizon forcing the purse strings to once again be tightened.
The local grocer saved the panicked consumer. Shoppers recognised their importance when supermarket shelves became bare. Newsagents, off-licences and butchers became the heroes of the high streets, providing saviour to panicking customers. This lasting impression, along with a doubling down of wanting to support local producers as we face the prospect of another economic recession, will no doubt encourage consumers to continue buying more locally (at least in the short-term whilst travel restrictions continue to be imposed).
Consumers had no choice but to engage with brands and grocers on their doorstep during lockdown, leading some to discover their local producers and suppliers for the very first time. The perceived value placed on brands or those independent traders who were able to support consumers during this period may prove to be the key building blocks to future success.
Restrictions, social distancing and government guidelines means one thing: the future of the high street is going to look rather different to the one we left behind.