With pubs, restaurants, cinemas and hairdressers being able to reopen from 4 July, business in the UK are on the lookout for positive signs from consumers about their intention to go back to pre-COVID-19 purchase behaviour.

Indeed, consumer confidence has improved since May when it reached its lowest point since January 2009. UK retail sales improved too although still lower than the pre-COVID-19 period. And meanwhile, the proportion spent online reached the highest proportion on record in May 2020 at 33.4%, according to Reuters.

Nevertheless, there is doubt about how quickly the UK economy can recover considering the expectation of a surge in unemployment following the phasing out of the government furlough scheme.

And the UK population is reserved about the future. In a recent study conducted by ENGINE only 33% of the UK population said they felt optimistic about the future while the rest either think things will either stay the same or worsen (27%).

Currently, finance, work and employment status are the least satisfactory aspects of life with 59% of the nation expecting it will take more than a year to improve their finances.

This means brands will have to work hard to retain existing customers and convince them to buy more. So, what should brands know about the post-COVID-19 consumer?

The mindful consumer

The lockdown in the UK radically changed some of our daily habits overnight. We have seen increased online shopping, reignited interest in home improvements, cooking and baking and elderly generations shifting to digital channels. Companies started operating fully virtually in some cases. Undoubtedly, a different every-day for most of us in the UK. With that our nation’s hopes, fears and plans changed too.

Firstly, we changed the way we look at life and assess our satisfaction with it. Life satisfaction during COVID-19 was derived from focus on personal relationships and wellbeing unlike before the crisis where work and finances had a far greater impact (Figure 1). 

Consequently, we quickly changed our plans and our top priorities became:

  • spending more time with family and friends (68%),
  • saving money (59%),
  • introducing more enjoyment in life and improving our physical health (58%).

In March alone, financial services providers reported rise in demand for savings plans and since the pandemic reading books, watching TV (live and streaming) and other ways of enjoying their time.

Instead of expanding ownership and valuables, the post-COVID-19 consumer is expanding connections with others by focusing on family and friends. And equally expanding connections with themselves by turning to their own wellbeing and enjoyment in life.

Our spend follows our priorities

This shift in values and priorities mean that big ticket item decisions and purchases have been put on hold for the time being. Marriage and divorce as well as having a first child or more children are being deprioritised as a result of the pandemic. A third of the population said these aspects have become less important and it did not make a difference whether someone was in a relationship or single. Equally, around a third of the population stated that buying a home has become less important as a result of the pandemic (Figure 2a,b).

For brands, this means they will need to identify ways in which they can support these priorities and needs if they want to remain relevant.

And convenience and speed won’t cut it

With physical stores closed the nation moved online for their purchases. Nielsen recorded that 7.9m households ordered groceries online, compared to 4.8m the previous year for the same period (of which 1.1m of these were new to online grocery shopping), consumers are expecting to abandon some of these habits.

Our study shows that 1 in 5 expect to do less online shopping, at-home exercises and consume TV once thee lockdown is lifted.  

And to draw consumers to their own physical premises whether store or restaurant, brands will need to focus more on managing the interactions and expectations at site and focus less on convenience and speed. When asked what they would like to see offered at premises, least number of consumers chose options that offer speedy and exclusive access (e.g. dedicated slots, fast track options etc.). Instead, most consumers would be content with hand sanitisers, visible sanitisation and staff that is protected. Following that, they would like to see support in how they navigate the space and how crowds are managed.

Under 35s are far more optimistic

Under 35yr olds are most optimistic. 48% of them expect life to get better (against an average of 33%) and they are around four times more likely to say that buying things for themselves including beauty/fashion items or electronic devices (laptop, phone etc.) have become more important (40% vs 11%).

Moreover, under 35 yrs olds are twice as likely to say they will interact with brands digitally.

Brands that were worried the surge in online interactions may disappear post-COVID can be reassured by the fact that the youngest consumer cohort is only getting more comfortable online.   

Purpose over product

Having had a taste of a different reality, only 33% of consumers think companies should go back to operating the way they did before the pandemic. Majority believe businesses should change the way they operate and education and healthcare employees are most vocal about the need for change.

In order to stay competitive UK’s consumers believe that brands should focus on people and purpose over product and service. The top areas of focus according to consumers are:

1. Being more socially responsible
2. Look after the people who work for them
3. Be prepared for a future pandemic
4. Reduce prices overall
5. Focus on how they source their products

However, consumers have different expectations from the different industries. For instance, financial services are expected to focus far more on customer communication if they want to stay competitive and, insurers are expected to demonstrate how they will help the country in times of difficulty. Retailers on the other hand, should concentrate on digitalisation while restaurants, more so than other sectors on human interaction.

Consequently, the communication that consumers want to hear from brands has changed:

  • In 6 out of the 7 investigated industries consumers want to hear how brands are taking care of their employees, helping consumers save money and how they are helping the local community.
  • Retailers and shopping malls are expected to communicate how they will provide a better experience.
  • Restaurants, retailers and grocery stores are expected to communicate to how they source their products and helping customers stay healthy.
  • And consumers would like to hear reassurance from the financial services sector about their financial stability as well as how they intend to help the country overall.

In summary, while we are all looking forward to getting back to our pre-Covid habits and activities, our values and needs are significantly shifting. There are a few things brands should consider as we come out of this episode in history:

Consumers will focus on getting the most out of their spend as they become concerned with financial stability and safety Assess the perceptions of value for money you your brand is projecting. How can you ensure you are not seen as offering little value for money?
Social, physical and mental wellbeing are being prioritised over work and finance as values Revisit how well your brand aligns to consumer values. How can you appeal to the positive values in consumers lives?
Stories about purpose and people is what consumers are keen to hear aboutEnsure you are adapting your communication to reflect what consumers what to hear about within your industry and about your brand specifically

* ENGINE’s Brand Intelligence tracker is a primary study amongst n=1500 UK nationally representative sample.

Join us for a webinar on 8th July, “Life after lockdown – what should your brand expect?” to hear more about consumer expectations after lockdown. Register here.

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