As US vaccination rates swelled in early summer, the US seemed to have the pandemic in the rear-view mirror, but now COVID-19 is on the move again, with the spread of the Delta variant. And with that movement we have seen a retrenchment of the previous gains in consumer confidence, as consumers once again express greater worry and frustration as well as heightened concern that the worst may be still to come and that future lockdowns are possible. Coronavirus variants and low vaccinations rates are the main reasons why consumers believe the pandemic is worsening. In fact, we see a larger percentage of Americans today (34% of those who said that more of the US population must get vaccinated in order for them to feel safe) versus in May (22%) who say that the necessary vaccination rate must reach 90% or more before they will feel safe.1 Many also indicate that they are more cautious in their behavior now than in May—trying not to leave home, attending outdoor gatherings only, or wearing a mask when attending gatherings indoors.
The pandemic also appears to be wearing on many people. Although some confident consumers say that they are going unmasked because they believe they are safe, others say that they are doing so because they are tired of mask restrictions and simply want to return to normal. Another possible sign of pandemic fatigue: despite acknowledging higher levels of uneasiness about participating in various activities today than in May, more consumers are engaging in those same activities.
Values and Priorities
COVID-19 has inspired many people to rethink their priorities. We see consumers valuing family, mental health, physical health and exercise, friends, financial stability, and faith more than they did before the pandemic. At the same time, we see them deprioritizing career and work, colleagues, and being part of the community. Accompanying that reorientation toward family and health and away from work and community, we see a greater number of employees expressing an interest in changing jobs to improve their work-life balance, as well as an increased desire for a remote/hybrid working model—although significantly fewer employees believe it will be offered than want it. Also, among employees who traveled regularly for work before the pandemic, many believe they will travel less in a post-COVID-19 world.
When we look at consumers’ self-reported historical and future spending, the coronavirus has created winners and losers. We have seen a number of short-term declines or “valleys” in sectors that require interpersonal interaction (such as childcare, leisure travel, and restaurant dine-in) and in sectors whose products depend on those interactions to drive need (such as apparel and beauty). Longer-term declines or “downshifts” are likely to beset sectors such as public transportation and business travel—areas where new consumer behaviors have emerged, some of which are likely to stick.
On the positive side, we have noted “forward buying” of pets to keep people company and of DIY home improvement, home furnishings, and décor to dress-up the at-home environment where people had to spend so much time. We saw a “mountain” or temporary surge in consumers’ buying of groceries, including packaged and frozen foods, inspired by the lockdowns and restrictions. But in addition to these temporary surges, we predict several “upshifts” that are likely to persist for a much longer time. For example, COVID-19 has increased the importance of cleaning products, giving that category a longer-term boost. More entertainment content has moved to in-home release during the pandemic, too, accelerating the shift toward in-home entertainment that was already underway before the coronavirus struck. And finally, many of us have gotten used to the convenience of food takeout and delivery—and more restaurants have adapted to offer it.
As late summer edges into early fall and the school year resumes in many localities, new challenges await US consumers. But whether COVID-19 finally yields to the effects of an ever-increasing percentage of vaccinated people in the population or manages to mount yet another surge in infections, the American public will continue to balance the realities of life during a pandemic against the longer-term promise of a post-COVID-19 world.
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.
1. In August, 48% of respondents said that at least some increase in vaccination totals must occur before they will feel safe; within that group, 34% said that the vaccination total must be at least 90%.