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Trust in the Time of COVID

Today’s consumers are prioritizing values and holding brands accountable in new and powerful ways, especially as we face a period of uncertainty and ongoing fear stemming from the global COVID-19 pandemic.  In this first of a weekly series of blog posts, we comment on how the COVID-19 pandemic and retail initiatives addressing COVID-19 impacts are influencing consumer perceptions and trust.  Our analysis is based on a proprietary survey of 1,920 US consumers fielded between late May and early June of 2020. To understand how consumers are currently responding to and coping with the continuing pandemic, we asked a series of questions about their attitudes, behaviors, and outlook as it relates to shopping, brand loyalty and winning their trust. The broader study explores some of the key shifts in attitudes and consumer expectations toward values-based retailing and comments on strategies brands can adopt to succeed in winning their trust.

Divergent Consumer Responses to COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented force that has been devastating the world for months, and US consumers remain split in their outlook and perceptions along demographic and political lines. But first and foremost, the data show COVID-19 has had a stunning impact on nearly all consumers, with more than 4 in 5 saying the global pandemic has at least slightly influenced their shopping attitudes and outlook for the future. The younger and more diverse generations of Millennials and Gen Z, parents with young children, self-reported Democrats, and those living in more urban settings are even more likely to cite being impacted by COVID-19.

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And while a vast majority of consumers cite COVID-related changes to their shopping routines and outlook, key segments emerge from the data that reveal striking differences among cohorts:

  • The largest segment of consumers (30%) 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. They tend to be younger, middle and upper-income, and urban. Hispanic consumers are over-represented in this segment compared to the total US population.
  • The second leading segment, representing just under 3 in 10 consumers (29%) 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 55, living in more suburban communities, and being empty nesters who may be at higher risk of virus-related complications. Along with the “Hopeful at Home” segment, “Concerned Stockpilers” are more likely to identify as Democrats compared to the sample average.
  • About 1 in 5 (20%) 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. Their income tends be slightly polarized, with over-representation among both lower and higher income thresholds reported.
  • Finally, about 15% of consumers surveyed cluster in the “Tough Times Ahead” cohort. 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 or Independent voters. This group is more likely to have kids at home and to be Black or Asian.
  • The remaining 5% of respondents opted not to self-report into statements probed.

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Consumers Recognize Retailer Efforts to Address COVID Impacts

We explored which US food, drug and mass brands are winning with consumers and how a brand’s response to the pandemic relates to consumer trust. Encouragingly, about 2 in 3 consumers agree that stores, brands, and websites they shop at are doing the right amount to stem the spread of the coronavirus.  However, about 1 in 4 believe retail companies are not doing enough while only about 1 in 10 feel brands are doing too much.

  • Men are more likely than women to say companies are doing too much to address the spread of COVID-19, and males also made up a larger proportion of self-identified Republicans in our sample. The cohort least likely to say that stores and brands are not doing enough are Republicans.
  • On the other hand, consumers below the age of 35 in urban centers as well as those with young children at home are likelier to feel that brands and retailers are not doing enough to curb the coronavirus spread. These populations may be experiencing an outsize direct impact due to more virus exposure in densely populated communities, greater disruption to active lifestyles, and school closures affecting both current students and exasperated parents.

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We further asked consumers to rate 17 large regional and national food, drug and mass retailers across the country to understand their perceptions toward trust, loyalty and the relationship with their perceived handling of the pandemic.

HEB Rated Tops for COVID Response Efforts and Net Promoter Score

HEB received the highest score across all retailers studied for stepping up to support the community during the pandemic. Critically, HEB also received the highest net promoter score (NPS), an important consumer metric reflecting an exceptional degree of loyalty and trust in this brand, among all retailers studied.  HEB did not rank #1 for any of the other attitudinal statements probed, but the company earned the #2 spot among consumers as a brand they trust completely.

Consumer recognition earning HEB the top spot for supporting the community during the pandemic comes in the wake of large-scale and highly publicized initiatives the company deployed since the pandemic began.  HEB actively contributed to and encouraged customers to participate in local food drives benefiting community organizations and hospitals. The company proactively instituted increased safety and sanitization measures, provided support for senior citizens, implemented safer in-store shopping procedures including more efficient ecommerce options, raised employee pay, and provided PPP and free meals for its employees.  It is also noteworthy that HEB was able to move quickly on its response by activating an action-plan developed in 2005 for the H1N1 virus as well as its emergency preparedness and agility honed during hurricane disaster relief efforts.

Pictured Above: HEB’s newest 130,000-square-foot store located in South Austin and featuring H-E-B Curbside and Home Delivery services, a large pharmacy with drive-thru lanes, and the city’s first True Texas BBQ with a drive thru. Source: HEB Newsroom.

Engaging Consumers During and Post-COVID

Never before have consumer lifestyles been so profoundly and universally influenced by a health crisis.  Nor have companies been so vocal about social activism, political issues, and values-based retailing. In the coming weeks, we will highlight both subtle and seismic changes in how consumers perceive the role of brands in today’s social and political discourse, looking back on 10 years of consumer data.  It’s never been more important for brands and retailers to deeply understand shifting consumer expectations toward brand values and to align their communications and their actions to establish consumer trust.     

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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