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Six Months Later, Consumer Views on COVID-19 and Shopping Persist

Today’s consumers are prioritizing health and safety in their shopping behavior in powerful ways as we face ongoing change and uncertainty stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, results of our recent consumer tracker suggest consumers’ early pandemic views have had lasting staying power. Last month, we launched a biannual tracker representing responses from another 2,000 US consumers.  The survey measured brand trust, holiday shopping patterns, and observed changes in consumer perceptions toward the pandemic since we last conducted our brand trust tracker in late May. Regarding consumer perceptions toward the pandemic, we found few significant changes over the 6-month period:

  • Despite the evolving nature of pandemic impacts since the fall surge took hold, consumers reported steady to slightly elevated level of pandemic influence on their shopping habits and future outlook
  • Key consumer cohorts emerging from the May tracker, including Hopeful at Home, Concerned Stockpilers, Business as Usual, and Tough Times Ahead, maintained relatively stable distribution levels in the November national sample
  • Self-reported political affiliation continued to show the strongest association with pandemic related perceptions compared to demographic factors studied
  • Underlying demographic skews related to pandemic perceptions performed similarly as before, with slightly increased incidence of citing COVID impacts in rural and suburban areas as well as among self-identifying Republicans and Independents since May

Consumer Concerns Remain High Amidst a Worsening Pandemic

Consumer tracker data show COVID-19 has had a stunning impact on nearly all consumers throughout 2020, with more than 4 in 5 saying the global pandemic has influenced their shopping attitudes and outlook for the future.  In late November, more than a third (36%) reported a significant impact to their shopping attitudes and outlook on the future, up slightly from 34% in the late spring.

Note: Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding

Underlying demographic patterns in COVID perceptions have also remained stable over time.  Notably, those who self-identify as Democrats are more likely to report that COVID-19 has influenced their shopping attitudes and outlook on the future.  Other related demographic factors, such as younger age breaks and greater racial and ethnic diversity, also correlate with a higher propensity to cite COVID impacts. Initially, respondents living in urban settings cited the greatest impact when compared to residents in suburban or rural areas. This remains true, however, the gap in stated COVID impact has declined between the November and May survey fieldwork, reflecting changing patterns in regional COVID spread to smaller towns during the fall surge.

Divergent Sentiment toward COVID Impacts is Remarkably Stable

In our last post following the May survey distribution, we commented on polarized consumer views toward the pandemic and emergent differences in attitudes and self-reported behaviors across key cohorts. And despite many significant shifts in the pandemic and retail landscape between the late spring and late fall (most notably in infection rates, lockdown restrictions, and vaccine-related developments), the composition of respondent cohorts remain surprisingly stable over time:

  • The largest segment of consumers (33%, +3 pts. since May) report changing up their shopping routines, adhering to social distancing and feeling cautiously optimistic about overcoming this challenging period. This “Hopeful at Home” cohort has shifted to doing more of their shopping from home. “Hopeful at Home” respondents tend to identify as Democrat, be younger, middle and upper-income and with higher levels of education, and urban or suburban.
  • The second leading segment, representing just over 1 in 4 consumers (27%, -2 pts.) cite taking fewer shopping trips, stocking up, and feeling worried about their family and the long-term effects of the crisis. These “Concerned Stockpilers” over-index for being above the age of 65 and being empty nesters who may be at higher risk of virus-related complications. In our November study, respondents who lived in small towns or rural areas, in the Midwest, and were at lower to middle income levels were also likelier to be “Concerned Stockpilers.”
  • About 1 in 5 (21%, +1 pt.) consumers surveyed report no significant changes to their shopping behaviors but feel anxious to get back to their normal everyday routines. These “Business as Usual” consumers are likelier to be male, white, live in smaller towns or rural communities, and to identify as Republicans. This segment also over-indexes for higher levels of income.
  • Finally, about 16% (+1 pt.) of consumers surveyed cluster in the “Tough Times Ahead” They report working hard to cut back their spending and are more likely than average to be Millennials who live in urban communities, to report lower to middle incomes and to identify as Democratic voters. This group is more likely to have kids at home and to be minorities.
  • The remaining 5% of respondents opted not to self-report into statements probed.

Note: Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding

Engaging Consumers During and Post-COVID

Never before have consumer lifestyles been so profoundly and universally influenced by an ongoing health crisis. As this year comes to a close, the challenges facing brands and retailers remains to safely engage with consumers, forge connections and build trust through an uncertain time. And while surges in COVID-19 cases and new business restrictions have put downward pressure on consumer confidence, the wave of change continues with the promise of national vaccine roll-out, renewed economic stimulus, and a consumer eager for change and the promise of a new year.

We help clients across retail segments nimbly adapt their strategies, supply chains, omnichannel capabilities, and value proposition amidst unprecedented change. To learn more about our consumer work, simply contact us. Or, learn more about our offerings to help businesses adapt their strategies to the changing pandemic environment here.

Jill Wahl

Jill directs McMillanDoolittle’s consumer insights practice and applies her global experience in quantitative and qualitative research to drive growth for her clients. Jill offers expertise in survey-based research, online qualitative, social listening, and focus group moderation to deliver timely and relevant insights that bring businesses closer to the people they serve. Since joining McMillanDoolttle in 2013, Jill has conducted extensive consumer insights work and has led strategic planning engagements for retailers, suppliers, and investors in North and South America, Europe and Oceania.

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