What are a few things you’ve done, just today, that you would not have done so readily before COVID-19? Did you wake up at 8:30 instead of 6:30, disinfect your hands, track a package that you ordered online or used a cheaper brand of cleaning product to tidy your at-home office?
As insignificant as these types of changes may seem, they bear a massive significance to the global marketplace — one that cannot be denied or overlooked. The pandemic has radically shifted the behaviors, patterns and rhythms of all people, and their habits of consumption have undoubtedly come along for the ride.
As a response, businesses must take the stock of their customers’ new and emerging needs and ‘meet them where they are’ — even if that meeting place happens to be miles away from an original home base. Doing this efficiently and impactfully relies on human-centered thinking, and on the deep and careful consideration of the prevalent needs and pain points of a customer-base to guide dynamic and powerful innovation now.
To begin this process, let’s examine three standout consumer shifts that have emerged as a result of COVID-19, and use these as a preliminary guide to reimagining and reshaping future-facing products and services.
A purchase with purpose:
Facing enormous fluctuations in the economy, consumers across the world are holding their money tighter during COVID-19 and prioritizing necessary and less expensive purchases over impulse-buys.
“Even in countries that have partially reopened, consumer optimism remains muted and spending intent is still below pre-crisis levels,” states a recent McKinsey report on consumer sentiment and behavior in a Covid-19 economy.
As a response to this consumer trend, businesses must reflect on the necessity of their product or service in this delicate economy and ask, “why do customers need us right now?” While the topic may be a fearful one to tread for providers of auxiliary services (entertainment or beauty products, as an example) it will likely lead to insightful discussion around ways to pivot for necessity or to fortify the ‘return of the customer’ when the economy does stabilize.
A well-reported example of a pivot-for-customer necessity would be quick action of some distilleries to use their machinery to create hand sanitizer, showcasing innovation for immediate and primary needs within a secondary-need context.
Staying relevant to a tentative customer-base requires bold thought, and the brainstorming of human-centered ideas that reach well beyond what seemed implausible in the past. It also requires transparency and authenticity, so leaders must make moves to stay connected with their customer-based and to make it clear that they are sincerely interested in finding direct solutions for the problems their customers are facing.
A virtual reality
Long before the world became familiar with COVID-19, e-commerce was gaining rapid ground. Yet while the adoption of virtual delivery has been a universal business consideration for years — the pandemic has made it an imperative.
A Forbes report on COVID-19’s transformative impact on e-commerce finds that there has been a 129% year-over-year growth in U.S. & Canadian e-commerce orders as of April 21, 2020 and an 146% growth in all online retail orders. This move means that consumers are not only shopping more online, but anticipating that for the foreseeable future, most of their social and commercial activities will be delivered within the online space.
The pandemic has given the necessary push numerous businesses needed to move into an online space, yet there remain many who cannot see how their brick-and-mortar delivery could successfully exist in a virtual environment. As Deloitte points out in a related paper, this is a time for leaders to be bold, to think outside the box and to see the possibilities, rather than limitations, of this technological shift.
“Older [consumers] may grow more comfortable with digital channels, opening up new opportunities for retailers to reach a notoriously challenging demographic,” states the author, highlighting one of the many windows of opportunity that have been opened as a result of the pandemic.
As an example of seizing the unique opportunity at hand, the Harvard Business Review points to the Cincinnati-based Crossroads Church who was challenged to move their weekly sermons into an online space. Rather than seeing a limitation, they saw an opportunity to strengthen their delivery: “they now film pastors delivering messages at different locations to help reinforce that week’s message (for example, talking about the importance of a strong foundation at the site of a historic church).”
Those still struggling to make the transition into the online space might consider organizing a digital and open-to-all meet-and-greet with customers. In this meeting, they could ask customers how they would envision what the company’s products or services would look like in a digital space and remain open to all or any of their feedback. Taking this first step will greatly emphasize that the leader is, literally, willing to meet their customers where they are: online.
Home for the long haul
They say home is where the heart is, but nowadays, home is where everything is. Not only does HBR report that most CFOs are planning to shift at least 20 per cent of their workforce to a permanent work-from-home model, but a McKinsey study on the new ‘home economy’ finds that most people will not willingly return to their regular rhythms of life until the crisis has come to a complete end.
“In most countries, more than 70 percent of survey respondents don’t yet feel comfortable resuming their “normal” out-of-home activities,” the report reads.
This shift means that businesses must begin to weigh the concept of ‘home’ heavily into their innovation model: If leaving the house once factored greatly into a company’s prior services, it may be time to ask ‘how might we replicate our in-person experience in a home environment?” Taking this challenge one step further, they might ask, “how might we incentivize a tentative customer’s return?’
“[The company has] to give people a reason to visit that is so compelling, it justifies their exposure to health risks and overcomes the inertia of the behaviors they adopted during the shutdown,” says a Harvard Business Review paper on the new rules of retail.
One preliminary way a business may look to incentivize that return of the customer is to put overt measures in place to keep them safe.
“Across countries, survey respondents say that when deciding where to shop, they look for retailers with visible safety measures such as enhanced cleaning and physical barriers,” says a McKinsey report. “The actions that businesses take during this pandemic are likely to be remembered long after COVID-19 has been conquered.”
While these seismic shifts in customer behavior present great challenges for business across the world, they also present huge opportunities for bold innovation that can be accelerated, enhanced and made sustainable through human-centered thinking.