The Consumer Sentiment Series

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The Consumer Sentiment Series

November 2021: Lingering

US consumers are far more optimistic today than they were 14 months earlier, but their optimism is coupled with a significant degree of hesitancy about fully returning to normal or to the way they lived before COVID-19.

  • Some two-thirds of those vaccinated (69%) and unvaccinated (63%) indicate that they remain cautious about their activities.
  • The pandemic may have altered some behaviors long term. For instance, 25% of consumers are increasing online spending relative to their prepandemic spending, citing convenience and efficiency, fast and free shipping, and the ability to avoid crowds as advantages.
  • Survey participants anticipate a long-term shift to more hybrid and remote work, but more say that they would prefer such a model than expect to be offered one.

See more findings of our survey of up to 5,000 US consumers here.

By Lauren Taylor, Lara Koslow, Greg McRoskey, and TR Geng

It’s a nagging feeling that we just can’t move on—that’s how US consumers seem to be experiencing the pandemic today. On the one hand, concerns over COVID-19 have receded, as only 27% of respondents to our most recent consumer sentiment survey believe that the worst of the pandemic still lies ahead, compared with a high of 77% in March 2020. But on the other hand, more than 50% of respondents continue to express both worry and frustration about the situation. (See Exhibit 1.) Their worries focus not only on the potential for a spike in COVID-19 cases or the emergence of a new variant, but also on the impact of the continuing disruption on the economy and on their own finances: 80% of consumers said that they were concerned about the rising prices of goods and services. (See Exhibit 2.) Many survey participants have seen significant price increases and expect this inflation to continue next year. (See Exhibits 3 and 4.) As a result, more people—especially those with incomes below $100,000—are reducing the quantity of products they buy, switching to lower-priced brands, and seeking out discounts and promotions. And as economic pressures have intensified, consumers have become more likely to identify economic and financial concerns as reasons for cutting back on activities and spending.

Adjusting to Disruptions

As we approach the holiday season, US consumers are altering their buying behavior in response to supply chain disruptions. In our survey, 73% of respondents said that they had encountered stock-outs, 46% delayed deliveries, and 41% increased wait times at restaurants or retailers. (See Exhibit 5.) Faced with these challenges, consumers are delaying purchases, buying online, switching brands or stores, buying less, or buying earlier in anticipation of a delay. And for the coming holidays, consumers say that they expect to spend less, buy earlier, and shift more of their spending online. (See Exhibit 6.) This trend toward earlier holiday buying may temporarily prolong the appearance of forward buying, but we are seeing the pattern of forward buying in most categories begin to slow. (See Exhibit 7.)

Vaccine Confidence

US consumers’ confidence in the effectiveness of available COVID-19 vaccines remains high, and more than 80% of those who had already received one said that they plan to get a booster. (See Exhibit 8.) Consumers are split, however, on the question of support for vaccine mandates for parents and children. (See Exhibit 9.)

Priorities Revisited

We have observed a number of significant changes in consumer behavior over the past year that may reflect a broader reevaluation of individuals’ priorities. (See “COVID-19 Consumer Sentiment Snapshot #11: Getting to the Other Side” [June 2020] and “Consumer Sentiment Series August 2021: Lasting Impact.”) For example, many survey respondents—particularly hourly employees—have decided to switch jobs or leave the workforce entirely. (See Exhibit 10.) Consumers also say that they are prioritizing health and exercise, and we have seen a shift toward more in-home exercise. (See Exhibit 11.)

Making Travel Plans

Finally, survey respondents’ concern over travel continues to fade, as 72% of them said that they expected to travel for a vacation in the next six months, and a larger percentage of respondents anticipated traveling for the Thanksgiving and December holidays in 2021 than in the prior pandemic year. (See Exhibits 12 and 13.) With so many signs of continued light, we can only hope for further progress as we turn the calendar to 2022.

About the Snapshot Series and Research

Our Snapshot series began in March 2020 and includes more than twenty articles and slideshows delivered periodically over the ensuing 18 months. The series tracks sentiment and spending changes due to COVID-19.

The series is based on data drawn from an online survey of consumers that has been conducted regularly since early March 2020 across multiple countries worldwide. Each Snapshot highlights a selection of insights from a comprehensive ongoing study that BCG provides to clients. The survey is produced by the authors, who are members of BCG’s Center for Customer Insight (CCI), in partnership with coding and sampling provider Dynata, the world’s largest first-party data and insights platform. The goal of the research is to provide our clients and businesses around the world with periodic barometer readings of COVID-19-related consumer sentiment and actual and anticipated consumer behavior and spending to inform critical crisis triage activities, as well as rebound planning and decision making. A team composed of BCG consultants and experts from CCI completes the survey analytics.

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