In the latest of our Thinkins with Tortoise Media we were joined by Lysa Hardy - Chief Marketing Officer and Executive Board Member, Hotel Chocolat and Louise Stonier - Group Chief People and Culture Officer, Pets at Home and Richard Shotton - behavioural scientist and author of 'The Choice Factory'. During the event we discussed the impact of the pandemic on consumer behaviour. Drawing on our ‘Changing Consumer Priorities’ research we explored what was driving consumer behaviour post-pandemic, how retailers were seeing this play out both in their stores and among their employees, and the psychological drivers.

It is hardly a surprise that consumer behaviour has shifted as a consequence of the pandemic. Nor is it surprising that lockdown prompted a rapid acceleration of the shift to online shopping, even for sectors (such as luxury) where the transition had previously been lagging behind. Some shifts in behaviour, though, have been less predictable.

  • Consumers have been affected by anxiety in unexpected ways: Our research found that the key differentiator in consumer attitudes and behaviour post-pandemic is people’s sense of their own vulnerability. Anxiety over financial security, health and safety have become major factors in consumer behaviour - and, interestingly, the most anxious consumer group tends to be younger, which may affect particular retail brands in unexpected ways.
  • A more anxious consumer is a more demanding one: As people become more confident with online shopping, the competitive battleground is customer service. Average spend online has grown, along with expectations for a safe, timely delivery. Customer care teams have had to expand and adapt to a new, more demanding customer. Every package matters more than before.
  • More, and more varied, online shopping with a sting in the tail: As customers become more experienced with online shopping, and are increasingly willing to buy more expensive and luxury items online, it’s not only expectations for safe and fast delivery that rise but the potential for fraud too. Businesses need to tread carefully, building in discrete and sensitive tracking and mitigation measures into the delivery process.
  • Touch-free interaction, by default: Four-year plans for technology implementation have been squashed, by necessity, into 3-month sprints, not least with major investment in touch-free interactions throughout the customer journey. For businesses with a long-term strategy to optimise in-store as well as online, such investment will need to continue. Pre-pandemic plans to redesign larger stores as ‘experience destinations’ as opposed to transactional outlets may need to be adapted, too.
  • Staff are anxious too: Frontline retail staff, grappling with new hygiene regimes and social distancing enforcement, have had it tough. Amongst the chaos, a new standard of empathetic, honest and transparent internal communication had to be established.
  • Supply chain sustainability: Consumer concern about sustainability and human rights, of course, were a ‘trend’ that predated the pandemic. Both have deepened over the past year. Businesses should lean into consumer awareness of the provenance and packaging of their products, and the human rights record of the entire supply chain. A commitment to improvement (which is always possible) deepens the covenant of trust, which helps allay anxieties.

The main question on many retailers and consumer-facing businesses minds is ‘will it last?’ Forming a new habit requires a trigger, a reward and lots of repetition. The last 12 months have certainly felt repetitious, but this impending moment of unlocking poses a risk to some of our new shopping habits as well as creates an opportunity for us to form new ones. Our new expectations of in-store hygiene and online service are unlikely to reduce, even when all lockdown restrictions are lifted. And, for retailers, in particular, the complex (and costly) challenge of providing a true omnichannel service looms large.