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Evolving Consumer Sentiments

By Miller Zell

Consumer sentiments changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they will change again as society begins a process of reopening. Retailers must stay on top of the evolution of these sentiments.

It won’t always be easy. There will be distinct and varying levels of polarization between new shopping personas, from those eager to return to life as it was before and those who remain cautious about social spaces.

Further, many behaviors that developed out of necessity during the lockdowns — the rise of BOPIS being one — will remain because they provided a new level of convenience to shoppers.

The good news is many signs point to an economic surge. The National Retail Foundation is predicting that retail sales “will grow between 6.5 percent and 8.2 percent to more than $4.33 trillion in 2021 as more individuals get vaccinated and the economy reopens.”

It also appears that after a period of store closings that started before the pandemic, there’s a growing expectation for more store openings in 2021.

Still, retailers, banks, restaurants and other public spaces will need to triangulate on how to strategically serve a customer base with diverse feelings on what experiences best serve them.

So here are five areas of focus that will intersect with evolving consumer sentiments as we move forward.

Back to the office?

One significant game-changer is a potential return to offices for many workers. A recent headline in the Wall Street Journal noted, “Google to Invest $7 Billion in Bet on Post-Pandemic Office.”

Remote work produced mixed results. For some, it could remain in place as an option, perhaps for a few days a week. For others, the return to office spaces could be wanted or required.

Once people again leave their homes and go to public office spaces for work — whatever the percentage and whatever the staggered timeframe — they likely will be more willing to return to retail and restaurant spaces. After all, they are already outside of their homes.

A survey from Resonate this month noted:

In general, we see that consumers right now are itching to shop in-store, with 49 percent (+4) stating in-store browsing and buying as their top shopping preference. Meanwhile, curbside pick-up and same-day delivery are losing their luster, with preferences for each declining 5 and 3.7 percent, respectively. At the same time, in-restaurant dining frequency has increased slightly.

Retailers, restaurants and other businesses will need to figure out what this means for them. They need to collect data and strategically respond to new customer patterns, which likely will be very different compared to 2020 — and 2019.

A Boomer in health & wellness

Two notable and connected trends to watch as we emerge from the pandemic: 

  1. Vaccinated Boomers eager to spend money
  2. A boom in the health & wellness economy.

While brands often chase the younger demographics, Boomers hold more than half of U.S. household wealth and after a year of being cooped up and stressed out, they figure to be highly motivated to now live life to its fullest. Moreover, they were forced to embrace technology during the pandemic that they might have resisted before, so they no longer will be a generation of Luddites.

They also will be looking to improve and extend their quality of life, which is a big reason why the global health & wellness economy is expected to reach $4.5 trillion. Store spaces should plan accordingly with their marketing and product offerings.

It’s always important to understand various demographics, and marginalizing the older ones at present could have particularly negative revenue repercussions.

Meeting new behaviors with innovation

It’s time to be aggressive with innovation. That could mean:

  • Upgrading apps to improve and support the in-store experience.
  • Upgrading BOPIS environments and service.
  • Considering store-within-a-store partnerships.
  • Adding/improving curated experiences, such as shopping by appointment.
  • Adopting VR/AR technology knowing that shoppers now are ready to try new things.

It’s also critical to consider how holiday shopping might be different. While more shoppers are certain to be out and about this fall and winter than last year, it’s unlikely we’ll see the return of the old-school Black Friday frenzy. The good news is the season will be longer, with shoppers looking for deals well in advance of Thanksgiving.

That also means being ahead of potential supply chain challenges and even using store space to support fulfillment.

Localize and focus on community

A recent article published by the U.S. Chamber of Congress noted that, “Post-pandemic, more direct-to-consumer brands will turn to physical retail as a way to build community.”

Stores serve as community hubs, and good stores build brand loyalty by showing their customers they care. This isn’t just about making sure product selection matches regional tastes.

For example, last summer Walmart transformed many parking lots into drive-in movie theaters.

This month, Lowe’s announced it is “sponsoring community restoration projects in 100 U.S. cities and towns, providing a total of $10 million for projects it will select, such as refurbishing a town’s theater that has fallen into disrepair, or repainting a senior’s home.”

“It’s our way to demonstrate to the customers and community we serve we’re more than just a retail store, that we want to be part of our community,” Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison told Fortune.

Make no mistake: These actions not only build goodwill. They more than pay for themselves.

Showcase diversity, inclusivity & sustainability initiatives

During the pandemic, our country looked inward and asked some tough questions. Last October in response to the pandemic, Edelman updated its "2020 Trust Barometer" with a special report that noted “71 percent [of consumers] agree that if they perceive that a brand is putting profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand forever.”

This is about more than an inspiring commercial during the Super Bowl. It’s about action.

For example, this month, “Unilever has announced that it will stop using the word ‘normal’ on all of its beauty and personal care products and brands as well as ceasing the practice of digitally editing model’s shape, size or skin color.”

As for sustainability initiatives, Target recently announced a major program to adopt solar power by “purchasing enough power to offset the electricity use of 60 Target stores or 37,100 homes.”

While post-pandemic customers will continue to focus on price and convenience — as always — their sentiments about entering brick & mortar environments will be different.

And, as always, those who stay ahead and best serve these sentiments will outshine their competitors.

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