Managing Director & Senior Partner
Published weekly, the COVID-19 Consumer Sentiment Snapshot highlights information drawn from a BCG consumer survey that we execute approximately every two weeks with our coding and sampling partner, Dynata, in an effort to understand consumer perceptions, attitudes, and behavior and spending changes related to COVID-19 as they evolve. This snapshot presents insights from research completed in the US market from March 6 to March 9, prior to a number of major COVID-19-related events, including the US government’s restriction of air travel from Europe, the UK, and Ireland to the US and the halting of most major professional sports league play (including NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS, and the US national soccer teams). Our next snapshot will examine how consumer sentiment has evolved following these events, and will assess US consumer sentiment in comparison with sentiment in the UK, Italy, and France. Future snapshots will extend the comparisons to China.
The Coronavirus or COVID-19 has generated fear that is impacting everything from travel and everyday activities to work-from-home policies and government interventions. Our research revealed that many US consumers believe that “the world is in serious danger” due to the virus (46% of consumers surveyed), that “there will be a recession” (56% of consumers), and that “the worst impacts are ahead” (65% of consumers).
COVID-19 clearly has US consumers on edge. But views about the significance of the virus are split. Although death and fear are the most frequent unaided words that survey participants associated with the coronavirus, the words overblown and hype also rank among the top five terms cited. (See Exhibit 1.) This is the sentiment of a well-informed audience, with 57% of consumers aware of the disease’s mortality rate of 3.5% of confirmed cases (according to WHO as of March 9, 2020)—a percentage that is higher than the corresponding percentage for seasonal flu (0.1%).1 Notes: 1 The 57% figure is the percentage of survey respondents who, when asked about the mortality rate of the coronavirus, gave a free response of 3% or less.
Consumers are already reporting expected changes in their spending patterns over the next six months. Many anticipate saving more (29%) and spending less on discretionary items such as fashion and luxury goods (–27%) and toys and games (–25%). (See Exhibit 2.)
Not surprisingly, consumers expect to spend less on vacations (–26%) and on gambling (–26%), which often require travel and engagement in a group environment. Among activities that consumers are most concerned about pursuing because of the virus, international travel and taking a cruise top the list, but other forms of travel in which consumers interact with large numbers of people—including flying; visiting theme parks, casinos, and hotels; and taking the bus or train—are worrisome as well. At least as of March 9, 2020, 22% also reported that they expected to spend more on leisure travel; 25% of these respondents said that they were doing so because they expected great deals (potentially as a result of the virus)—a perspective that has probably changed meaningfully following the government’s imposition of travel restrictions in the days that followed. Everyday activities—including going to restaurants and local stores— remain less concerning, even though they require consumers to interact with a substantial number of people in relatively close proximity. (See Exhibit 3.)
About 20% to 30% of consumers say that they are already spending less in everyday categories such as day-to-day in-store purchases, restaurant outings, and local leisure activities; but 70% to 80% say that they have not altered their planned spending on these items. (See Exhibit 4.)
Consumers tend to associate the risk of virus exposure with specific industry sectors or activities rather than with particular brands. For example, they see all cruise brands as carrying a high risk, but all local retail brands as being lower risk. That said, we found that consumer concerns about virus exposure are lower with luxury and premium brands than with mass brands, across industry sectors, to a statistically significant degree.2 Notes: 2 1.5% or more adjusted standardized residuals, based on chi-squared analysis. This difference may be due to a perception that these brands maintain a cleaner onsite environment. The data suggests that these brands may rebound a bit more quickly as the market recovers. For example, brand portfolio companies—whose brands range from mass to premium and luxury—that are faced with the challenge of buoying sales when we reach recovery may see more traction from efforts to advance sales of their more premium brands. (See Exhibit 5.)
Because US federal, state, and local governments have begun more actively discouraging or restricting travel and large group events in the days since we completed this round of research on March 9, we anticipate further, more significant spending declines in the travel categories prior to any leveling off and rebound. In addition, concerns about day-to-day activities, such as going to restaurants and retail stores, will likely increase moderately, fueling additional softening of spending in those categories.
To date, consumers indicate that pre-COVID-19 spending trends for consumer wellness and housing are continuing. These include buying more organic and fresh foods (24%), smoking less (–32%), and investing in the family dwelling (19%). Consumers also show signs of growing interest in preventive health care (23%) and household cleaning supplies (18%)—categories that are likely seeing an additional slight bump in spending as a result of the virus (beyond the pre-COVID-19 trend in growth that was already visible). As yet, we don’t see COVID-19 significantly impacting these trends, but overall spending in the categories of consumer wellness and housing could decline with the market if the economy moves into recessionary territory. Housing will certainly be impacted by any significant future changes in interest rates. Although it is obviously too early to confidently predict which spending categories will be most and least negatively affected by COVID-19, survey respondents’ current views provide an initial indicator—as well as a useful baseline of comparison for future responses to this question. (See Exhibit 6a and 6b.)
Next week, we will examine how these perspectives have changed in the US market since the federal government’s announcements restricting air travel from Europe, the UK, and Ireland to the US, the halting of most major sports league play, and the decision by many more companies to institute work-from-home and no-travel policies. We will also share our initial findings from the European market.
BCG’s COVID-19 Consumer Sentiment Snapshot is based on data drawn from an online survey of consumers in five countries (China, Italy, France, the UK, and the US) that is conducted approximately every two weeks. The survey is produced by the authors, who are members of BCG’s Center for Consumer Insight (CCI), in partnership with coding and sampling provider Dynata, the world’s largest first-party data and insights platform. The research does not prompt consumers about the virus when asking many of the key questions, including questions about spending changes in the next six months, in order to to avoid biasing the results. A team composed of BCG consultants and experts from CCI completes the survey analytics.
This article features a snapshot of insights from BCG’s COVID-19 research study. You may secure the full results of this study, when they become available, through your BCG contact.
Boston Consulting Group’s Center for Customer Insight (CCI) applies a unique, integrated approach that combines quantitative and qualitative consumer research with a deep understanding of business strategy and competitive dynamics. The center works closely with BCG’s various practices to translate its insights into actionable strategies that lead to tangible economic impact for our clients. In the course of its work, the center has amassed a rich set of proprietary data on consumers from around the world, in both emerging and developed markets. The CCI is sponsored by BCG’s Marketing, Sales & Pricing practice and Global Advantage practice. For more information, please visit Center for Customer Insight.
Dynata is the world’s largest first-party data and insights platform. With a reach that encompasses 62 million consumers and business professionals globally, and an extensive library of individual profile attributes collected through surveys, Dynata is the cornerstone for precise, trustworthy quality data. The company has built innovative data services and solutions around its robust first-party data offering to bring the voice of the customer to the entire marketing continuum – from strategy, innovation, and branding to advertising, measurement, and optimization. Dynata serves nearly 6,000 market research, media and advertising agencies, publishers, consulting and investment firms and corporate customers in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific. Learn more at www.dynata.com.