Study shows seismic shift coming in buying behaviors

Mike Troy
Editorial Director
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A return to “normal” is months away and once it arrives consumers claim they will behave very differently, according to a new study of 6,500 consumers in six countries.

The research project was undertaken by FleishmanHillard's TRUE Global Intelligence practice and explores the COVID-19 mindset to understand how the virus is reshaping perceptions, behaviors, values and societies.

"Consumer behavior has changed, and for many, those changes will persist past the pandemic. For example, consumers are signaling a seismic shift in their future buying behaviors for products and services they deem important,” according to Natasha Kennedy, senior partner and managing director of FleishmanHillard's TRUE Global Intelligence practice. “With a clear understanding of how the crisis has changed our expectations and beliefs, organizations can make decisions and communicate relevantly and meaningfully among employees, customers and communities."

The firm conducted simultaneous surveys of the United States, China, Germany, Italy, South Korea and United Kingdom to gain a view of various stages and expectations of the crisis, voiced by a cross-section of the population including healthcare workers, people at medical risk and those considered essential workers (65% of working adults), all of whom seem to feel the impact more acutely. While these countries are at various stages of the pandemic, the study illuminated some common experiences, including:

Consumers are most confident in their governments, least confident in their employers

  • Across markets, national government receives the best rating (47%) for its performance compared to other institutions, but while 79% of Chinese consumers rate their national government "excellent" or "great," their counterparts in the U.S. (34%), U.K. (50%), Korea (43%), Italy (39%) and Germany (37%) all give their national governments much lower ratings.
  • Major corporations are also receiving higher satisfaction in China (66%), but ratings range from a high of 28% (U.S. and Korea) to a low of 17% (Germany) across the other markets.
  • Employers of all sizes perform the worst, with only 29% rating their response "excellent" or "great."
  • Across these markets, seven out of 10 feels that other individuals are doing "excellent," "great" or "good" in fulfilling their role in this crisis, though some still need to understand the importance of cooperating – 12% reported they've ignored shelter-in-place requirements.

Individuals are planning for the long-term and aren't planning to snap back to "normal" life

  • A return to "normal" life varies by country, with the average individual in China believing it's as few as nine weeks away. Individuals in other countries believe it will take longer: 15 weeks on average in the U.S.; 17 weeks in South Korea and Germany; and 22 weeks in the U.K. and Italy.
  • More than one in five believe it will take between five months to two years to return to normal.

While most understand there will be layoffs and furloughs, 89% expect employers to be generous and creative in mitigating the impact on workers

  • 91% expect companies to take steps to help workers stay healthy – providing them with protective equipment and hand sanitizer, making sure they have breaks to wash their hands and making physical changes to space and operations to allow social distancing, among other steps.
  • 78% understand that some companies will need to furlough and lay off workers, a majority that holds across these countries (59% in Korea, the lowest, and 86% in the U.S., the highest).
  • 52% describe employers taking better care of their employees as "very important" right now.

Consumers are willing to help organizations support their employees

  • 71% will find ways to continue to patronize businesses, such as opting for delivery and pick up (50%) or through holding appointments by phone or online (44%).
  • 34% will purchase or pay for things they can't currently use, like gift cards (19%), and continue paying for memberships and services (17%).
  • 14% are willing to tip more and 9% are willing to pay higher prices.
  • 17% will donate to employer-administered funds that support workers.

Consumers plan to be cautious, even when the spread of the virus subsides – with substantial implications for economic and social recovery

  • 95% of consumers want companies to implement physical protection and distancing measures to help keep them healthy.
  • 65% are currently postponing purchases and travel, and 52% intend changes to their buying behaviors to continue.
  • 34% are postponing major life decisions, and 26% will take planning for major life decisions more seriously after the pandemic.
  • 27% are currently saving more than they normally do, and 26% plan to save more in the future than normal.

The pandemic has changed what people value, and they want new benefits and policies to endure

  • 68% report the pandemic has changed the products and services they once thought were important, a phenomenon even more widespread in China (86%) and Italy (73%).
  • 63% of employees want new benefits offered during the pandemic to be made permanent.
  • 71% want some of the positive government policies created during the crisis to be made permanent, including: 69% of Americans; 89% of Chinese; 77% of global millennials; 76% of workers deemed essential during the pandemic; and 77% of healthcare workers.
  • 21% of people (26% in the U.S.) who would normally need to be at their place of business to do their job now expect to have the option of working from home.
  • 26% of employees say they will be looking for another job with an employer that supports its employees, will no longer be loyal to their employer because of their actions during the pandemic, or will look into how an organization treated its employees when considering new employers.
  • 63% of America's Republican Party demographic base and 68% of the Democratic Party's demographic base say their view of the country's political system as a whole has changed.

Nearly everyone has felt the impact 

  • 98% have undertaken some new practice or postponed or canceled plans or purchases, and 90% report enduring changes in expectations and behaviors after the pandemic ends.
  • 78% are concerned for their health, and 74% are concerned for their financial situation; this level of concern is consistent across demographics.
  • 18% have a family member or friend whose health has been impacted by COVID-19, including 5% whose family member or friend died of the disease. In China and Italy, one-third (31% and 33%, respectively) have a family member or friend whose health has been impacted by the virus.

"Our research underscores the indelible importance of the actions taken by organizations now," said Peter Verrengia, senior partner and head of FleishmanHillard's global Recovery and Resurgence practice with deep experience in helping organizations emerge from crises. "The study shows the bigger the threat, economically and socially, the more important it is to create a foundation of confidence based on accountability, transparency, frequent updates and realistic, incremental goals. Well-structured communications, based on values and actions, can acknowledge the pain and challenges we all face today, while helping to improve and even accelerate better outcomes for individuals, organizations and society." 

Around the world, despite different systems and experiences, individuals are being united by this common experience, according to the firm.

"What we have seen so far as cities in China begin their early stages of recovery, is a sense of purpose and determination, and a recognition of personal responsibility," said Rachel Catanach, chair of FleishmanHillard's COVID-19 Taskforce and president and senior partner for Greater China.  "Workplaces are arranged to maintain healthy distances while still enabling operations to resume. Employers can acknowledge concerns about the health and safety of their employees and customers, but still create an expectation of progress, even if there may be occasional setbacks. With ongoing communications to inform and engage all stakeholders as the return to work rolls out, we believe that organizations can encourage productivity and shared innovation that can speed a sustainable recovery."