Why brands must embrace consumer post-pandemic buying habits

Collette Eccleston is the senior VP of the Pragmatic Brain Science Institute® at LRW, a Material Company. She has more than 10 years of experience conducting behavioral science research and specializes in applying behavioral science theory and methods to market research. Before her career in market research, Collette was a professor of psychology at Syracuse University, where her work addressed stereotypes, attitudes, identity, and group interaction. Collette received a B.A. in psychology from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The coronavirus pandemic has, in many ways, radically changed consumer behaviour. In-store shopping has plummeted due to social distancing measures, and many customers are instead opting for no-touch fulfillment and purchasing items online.

Once the pandemic passes, some shoppers will return to their previous buying habits as though nothing ever happened. But many consumers are forming new buying habits that will stick with them well into the future. Brands need to understand which of these new behaviours will stick so they can better meet their customers’ needs as the world starts getting back to “normal.”

Take grocery shopping, for example. Before the coronavirus crisis, a significant portion of consumers disliked going to the grocery store. For these consumers, social distancing guidelines that encourage people to limit their outings may have solidified this aversion.

Even as distancing guidelines expire, the ease of eCommerce experiences will likely keep consumers shopping this way.

Why does this matter? If someone’s grocer of choice doesn’t continue to make online shopping available or accessible after the pandemic, that person will take his or her buying power to a grocery store that does.

This should serve as a cautionary tale to brands across all industries that have altered their ways of doing business during the COVID-19 crisis. While these changes might seem temporary at the moment, new habits are being formed and reinforced daily. Those habits won’t just disappear when the pandemic improves, and there will be long-term consumer behaviours that brands cannot and should not ignore. After the pandemic, many brands won’t be able to return to their previous business models and marketing approaches abruptly. They’ll only remain strong if they continue to reinforce and reward these new consumer habits.

Rewarding consumers in the new normal

Brands should keep two broad categories of consumer rewards in mind when considering their post-pandemic business plans: tangible rewards and emotional rewards.

Tangible rewards are the extrinsic, physical, quantifiable benefits customers reap from doing business with a company. Online grocery shopping, for instance, provides the tangible reward of letting consumers accomplish their grocery shopping much more quickly than if they took the time to go to the store and browse the aisles.

As you might guess, emotional rewards focus on feelings — either a sense of accomplishment or a feeling of security that motivates consumers to continue a certain behaviour. These feelings are also the foundation for strong, lasting bonds between consumers and brands.

How to maintain the momentum

This pandemic is a highly emotional time for everyone, and brands are going above and beyond to ease consumer stress and anxiety. But to maintain this emotional connection, brands must continue to communicate the long-term emotional benefits of their offerings.

Shoppers might currently be happy to avoid germs and save time by buying groceries online, but the biggest ongoing benefit for most people will be the emotional relief of avoiding crowded grocery stores altogether. That is what brands must harness and cultivate to maintain momentum in the months and years ahead. Here are three ways to do that:

1. Meet needs now to form habits for the future

Certain businesses, such as at-home meal delivery services, have become more popular because of the pandemic. But this success doesn’t have to end just because stay-at-home orders are lifting and consumers are going back out into the world. Consumers are using products and services in these categories in a way that goes beyond necessity — they’ve come to value their convenience and the tailored needs they meet.

For instance, Blue Apron has the opportunity to use the recent push for at-home cooking kits long into the future, positioning its product and service as a way to save people time once they return to their normal lives. The brand has an opportunity to continue sharing how it can keep people safe and away from contact with the virus at grocery stores, but it can also become a beloved part of users’ lives.

2. Create experiences for consumers — they miss them

As humans, we crave connection. Isolation has been challenging for many, and people are ready to be back out in the world with others. They miss dining out at restaurants or visiting with friends in bars. Takeout just isn’t the same. With businesses reopening and gathering places allowing people to come together (albeit in limited numbers), brands have the opportunity to offer experiences to consumers while still finding ways to keep them safe.

Before planning an event, note that the majority of American consumers are still anxious about public gatherings and activity. When you have a firm understanding of those fears and that mindset, you can better plan experiences that will fill the desire for connection while actively working to prioritize safety.

3. Let research inform and propel you

Most importantly, harness the power of knowledge. While this is a moment of great opportunity for brands to continue building on the success they’ve found during the pandemic, it’s not a time to stop being strategic. Understanding consumers — who they are, what they feel, and what they need at this moment — should be at the heart of everything you do.

Take the time to collect, analyze, and use research to answer these questions before creating your brand messaging. Different brands will need to take different approaches to connect with customers at this moment, and it’s key to know how people want to use your products or services as well as the messaging they most want to hear.

Looking forward, it will be essential for companies to make sure their offerings and marketing messages align with — and reward — consumers’ new buying habits and expectations. Brands that provide a healthy combination of tangible and emotional rewards will be best positioned to thrive after COVID-19 subsides.

Retail has changed, and many of these changes are here to stay. Companies should prepare for a “new normal” instead of a “return to normal,” making it clear to consumers how their brands and products are essential today — and will remain essential well into the future.

Photo by Michael Fenton on Unsplash

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