Covid-19 and the consumer: Which behavioural shifts will stick?

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, the retail sector is delivering a masterclass in adaptability. Each day brings reports of remarkable innovations and emergency strategies delivered at lightning speed by management teams. Many won’t have faced such upheaval in their lifetimes.

When the dust settles, my belief is that the winning retailers will be those who have pivoted swiftly and cost-effectively to realign with Covid-19 induced behavioural shifts. Assuming some of these behavioural shifts become an ongoing part of consumer DNA post-Covid-19, it’s important to seize on them right now, to be well positioned for ‘the new normal’ to come.

Amazing retail responses

Where to start with examples of clever and, in many cases, caring retailer moves during the crisis? Grocery group Morrisons launched ‘essentials boxes’ and a dedicated telesales shopping service offering next day delivery on core items for vulnerable and elderly customers. It has seen demand rocket. At John Lewis, to maintain engagement with fashion fans frustrated by closed stores, the department store developed a range of new virtual services allowing customers to connect with fashion experts for consultations via Instagram.

Brands are supporting keyworkers and communities in the fight against the virus too, aligning with the emerging ‘conscientious consumer’. For example, WHSmith announced at the end of March it would be stocking an extended range of Sainsbury’s grocery products to “support the needs of NHS staff and make it easier for them to buy food and essential items”.

Halfords, the car, bike and accessories retailer, has invited NHS and emergency workers to claim a free ten-point car check or a bike service at most Halfords stores or Autocentres. Both The Body Shop and L’Occitane have donated care packages to local hospitals, while Kurt Geiger has been giving £100 gift cards to workers in critical care departments and is offering all NHS staff 50% discount for a year when its stores reopen. Louis Vuitton owner LVMH even adapted its perfume production lines to make hand sanitiser to protect people against the virus.

In China, there’s been a proliferation of live-streaming events to keep brand engagement alive, and to entertain customers during lockdown. For example, to compensate for closed stores, Dior and Chanel have both livestreamed their fashion shows and used celebrity ambassadors to advertise them on WeChat and Weibo, China’s prominent social media platforms.

Survival of the slickest

These brands must be congratulated for their ingenuity, efforts to embrace new channels and customer sentiments, and technical ability to put completely new ideas into practical action in a matter of weeks, even days.

They’ll be rewarded down the line too. There are strong signals that when coronavirus recedes, consumers will have warmed to new ways of shopping and engaging with brands. eCommerce will certainly be more deeply ingrained in their lives, as will social media, the notion of brand involvement in community campaigns, and live-streaming events that offer interesting ways to experience products and services.

All eyes on the consumer

Here at Astound Commerce we are keeping a close eye on how consumer behaviour is evolving during the pandemic. In March we carried out two surveys of 500 online global consumers in the US, Canada, the Middle East, and Europe, and from the results can now share our recommended long-term and short-term actions leadership teams should take to help their brands adapt.

A standout finding was that online shopping surged 55% across the globe between the week of March 9 and March 16, led by Europe (up 129%) and Canada (up 96%). It’s become clear that retailers able to provide omnichannel service options have the upper hand in these unprecedented times, as they can provide shoppers with an essential alternative to shuttered stores. Primark – which famously has no ecommerce division – says that closing all stores will cost it £650 million a month in lost sales.

Consumer fears about catching the virus while in stores or dealing with deliveries of goods has driven the need for contactless payment to be more widely available. Three-quarters of respondents in our survey said they have modified their normal day-to-day activities to be as contactless as possible (up from 57% one week prior). Contactless delivery options have become the industry’s answer to the isolation mandate, something that is likely to be adopted by all logistics and fulfilment companies going forward.

Lifting the lockdown

Retailers of course want to be primed and ready the minute coronavirus lockdown measures are lifted. Being ill-prepared could amount to missed opportunities and disappointed customers, but the big challenge is uncertainty around the timing and strategy governments will adapt.

Not surprisingly, UK retailers are already looking to countries like Austria, Denmark and Italy that are about to start lifting their lockdown restrictions, to try and glean insights about what ‘life after lockdown’ will look like. The experience of Chinese brands, and the post-Covid-19 behaviour of shoppers across Asia is also of interest.

It will be essential to pre-empt the likely footfall trends – will there be a trickle of returning shoppers or a stampede? And when it comes to eCommerce, will demand hold up or shrink back once the public is reunited with physical shopping? Will home delivery remain the preferred fulfilment option or should retailers expect a resurgence in click & collect’s popularity?

Omnichannel champions will emerge stronger

Our survey found that almost three quarters (72%) of global consumers think the coronavirus will be under control within six months or less. Optimism is shining through. And on another positive note, retail has taken pride of place in the community-spirited battle to beat the virus, with politicians around the world praising the bravery and energy of shop workers, delivery drivers, warehouse workers and shelf-stackers.

But there will be casualties and the biggest lesson learnt has to be this: in a crisis, digital is retail’s lifeline. Certainly the omnichannel trailblazers have proved to be best positioned for adapting quickly, as their cross channel customer service, flexible fulfilment options and technological know-how was already in place long before the nightmare of Covid-19 began.

To find out more on the current trends in commerce, and what they mean for your brand, check out Astound Commerce’s latest report COVID-19 and the consumer.

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