The Consumer Sentiment Series

Related Expertise: Marketing and Sales, Customer Insights

The Consumer Sentiment Series

May 2021: Opening Closed Doors

By Lauren Taylor, Lara Koslow, Greg McRoskey, Henry Fovargue, and Christy Carter

We are open—reopened—and that is creating optimism. In fact, US consumers are far more optimistic today than they were 14 months earlier, with only 17% believing that the worst of the pandemic still lies ahead, compared to 77% in March 2020. Even so, their optimism is coupled with a significant degree of hesitancy about fully returning to normal or to the way they lived before COVID-19. Over half of US consumers continue to avoid public spaces, and two-thirds are cautious about returning to pre-pandemic activities.

A tale of two types of consumers has emerged as we enter recovery. “Cautious” consumers either avoid leaving their homes except for essential activities or participate only in outdoor or masked indoor gatherings. “Confident” consumers comfortably participate in indoor gatherings of less than 15 people without a mask or in indoor gatherings of any kind without a mask.

Although many consumers in the US market are vaccinated, personal vaccination status does not significantly impact level of caution overall in our survey results: nearly two-thirds of those vaccinated (69%) and unvaccinated (63%) indicate that they are cautious. Indeed, many focus on whether others they encounter when they return to activities are vaccinated and say they won’t be entirely comfortable venturing out until at least 70% of US consumers receive vaccinations—a milestone that we believe the US can reach in the near term.

Going Digital: Retail and Restaurants

Despite widespread reopening of businesses, schools, and public places, consumer behavior remains very different today from the way it was before COVID-19. We do see signs of a gradual return to normalcy, but the pandemic seems to have altered some behaviors for the longer term. For instance, although consumers now express limited concern about shopping at stores, 25% of consumers say they are increasing online spending compared to their spending prior to the arrival of the coronavirus, with consumers citing its convenience and efficiency, fast and free shipping, and the ability to avoid crowds as advantages.1

We have seen a 9-percentage-point increase in consumers’ in-store spending from December 2020 to May 2021, and we anticipate further movement toward in-store spending as the economic recovery continues. Nevertheless, COVID-19 has accelerated online penetration and usage across multiple sectors, and some of this buying behavior and increased spending is likely to persist in the post-recovery era. For instance, 58% of consumers ordered restaurant takeout and delivery online during the pandemic, and 45% of those people were doing so for the first time or in a new way (for example, using a third-party app). Of those who ordered online, about 20% say that they expect to continue ordering online more when the COVID-19 health crisis is over than they did before it began.

In addition to increasing their use of takeout and delivery, consumers are dining less frequently at restaurants and more frequently off-premises (takeout or delivery). Longer term, consumers anticipate a return to pre-COVID-19 dining patterns, with only a slight shift away from in-restaurant dining (from 17% to 15%) due to a likely slight increase in consumers’ tendency to cook their own meals, use prepared/packaged food, or take advantage of takeout and delivery options.

Carpe Diem: Leisure Travel

Consumer concerns about leisure and travel activities continue. Among travel options, staying at a hotel or flying domestically create the least concern while international travel and cruising generate the most. Consumers still travel far less today than they did before COVID-19, but a large portion of consumers say that they now appreciate traveling more (41%).2 This will likely translate into a temporary uptick in leisure travel as we move into recovery, as an incremental 5% of consumers say that they plan to increase their travel in the short term.3 It may also result in a slightly higher steady state for leisure travel post-COVID-19, with an incremental 2% of consumers planning to permanently increase their travel over pre-pandemic levels.4 The desire to travel reflects an interest in “socializing with family and friends,” as well as a desire to “seize the day”—to live now because “life is short” and to “make up for lost time.”

Lessons Learned: Work and School

As America reopens, many consumers are looking toward returning to work and school. Although majorities of both cautious and confident consumers now feel comfortable about working onsite, most would prefer a hybrid or remote work model going forward. At the same time, more consumers say that they would prefer a hybrid or remote model than expect to be offered one. Overall, survey participants anticipate a long-term shift to more hybrid and remote work, with digital occupations seeing the most significant shift toward hybrid and remote working models.

There is also a difference in parents’ comfort level with sending their children back to school in person. Approximately half of cautious parents say that they are comfortable with sending their children back versus 82% of confident parents. Cautious parents also have a higher threshold for the level of vaccinations necessary to make them feel comfortable with resuming in-person schooling: 35% of parents who want to see a higher vaccination rate before they can feel comfortable with in-person schooling put the required vaccination rate at 90% to 100%, whereas only 21% require similar numbers in order to feel comfortable with attending large indoor events themselves. Nevertheless, parents’ opinions about the best mix of live and remote schooling largely align with their expectation of reality in the fall.

Fast-Forward to the Next Stage

Looking ahead to the end of the pandemic, a significant percentage of consumers today, particularly among those in the cautious camp, say that they would like to see many safety measures implemented during COVID-19 continue in its aftermath—for example, masks in Ubers/Lyfts/taxis, airplanes, public transportation, gyms, and restaurants; Plexiglas dividers at checkouts and counters; and social distancing at work. If the pandemic continues to wane and comfort and confidence in engaging in activities continue to grow, however, we anticipate that consumer sentiment in favor of continuing such safety measures will fade as, hopefully, the pandemic begins to recede into history.

About the Consumer Sentiment Series

Our series began in March 2020 and includes 12 core weekly articles, 2 special feature articles, and key charts delivered monthly starting in June 2020. The series tracks sentiment and spending changes due to COVID-19.

BCG’s Consumer Sentiment 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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Acknowledgments

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1. This is a net percentage, computed by subtracting those who are spending less from those who are spending more.

2. This is a net percentage, computed by subtracting those who appreciate travel less from those who appreciate travel more.

3. This is a net percentage, computed by subtracting those who plan to decrease their leisure travel in the short term from those who plan to increase their leisure travel in the short term.

4. This is a net percentage, computed by subtracting those who plan to decrease their leisure travel permanently from those who plan to increase their leisure travel permanently.

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