The coronavirus pandemic and future consumer demand
What recent online behavioural shifts tell us about tomorrow’s consumers
This article is part of a series of insights that reveal the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on online consumer behaviour. To be notified when new insights or data become available, please click here.
How long does it take to acquire a new habit? The answer, according to a widely quoted research paper is 66 days on average. As the coronavirus pandemic has now lasted more than 66 days in most countries, the question of gauging COVID-19 related habit-formation is about to be of practical importance for many business leaders. Governments in Europe have started to lift the stay-at-home restrictions, but how long will habits acquired during the pandemic last? When will online consumer activity return to pre-pandemic levels? To answer these questions, we looked at online consumer activity in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK since the start of the pandemic, and analysed how that activity has evolved over time.
Stage 1. Processing the news
Early January to early March 2020
For many consumers, news outlets were the primary conduit through which they learned about the pandemic. This is reflected in the data: of all content categories, “News/Information” was the first to see levels of activity increase noticeably. Consumption rose during the month of January 2020, then jumped significantly at the end of February 2020, when it became clear that the coronavirus was spreading across countries. It increased again around the middle of March 2020, when countries began to roll out national lockdowns. Online news consumption has remained high in most countries ever since.
Stage 2. Back to basics
Mid-March to early May 2020
With many European countries implementing stay-at-home measures in quick succession, consumers found themselves having to re-engineer both their daily routines and longer-term plans. The resulting online behavioural shifts were complex and multi-layered. Online retail benefited from the closure of high street shops; however non-essential or high-ticket purchases, such as holidays or new cars, were put on hold. Remote working prompted many to upgrade internet-enabled hardware. For some consumers, there had never been a better time to improve their homes. For others, online gaming was comforting. For parents, the challenge was to ensure continuous education and entertainment for their children. For all, social media and messaging apps became a key channel for keeping in contact with their community. The table below summarises online activity trends across select categories where activity increased noticeably during the pandemic.
Stage 3. Light at the end of the tunnel?
Early-May 2020 – onwards
The devastating impact of the pandemic on industries such as Travel & Tourism, Automotive and Real Estate is well-documented in the media. Will consumer appetite for products and services in these industries resume once the coronavirus is contained? There were encouraging signs of renewed online activity in the “Automotive” and “Real Estate” categories during the first couple of weeks of May 2020. Visits to these two categories have somewhat recovered after hitting a trough during March 2020, and in some cases, are above pre-pandemic levels. For the “Travel” category, however, activity remains subdued, probably owing to the uncertainty surrounding the logistics of any journey.
Circling back to the original question and based on these data, do we know yet if behavioural changes observed during the pandemic will last? It is likely too soon to tell for sure, as the easing of stay-at-home restrictions has only just begun and many uncertainties remain. It is unlikely that all consumer habits acquired during two months of being cooped up at home will disappear overnight, especially as the “new normal” will impose changes on how we live and work for some time to come. Many people have discovered online grocery shopping and may continue that habit. But other former habits, such as holidays, are undoubtedly missed, and the recent reversal of trends in sectors such as the Automotive and Real Estate industries are a possible indication that consumers have not entirely shelved their pre-pandemic plans.