What Consumers Will Care About in 2021

The clear headline from 2020 is the ongoing ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic and how consumers and business leaders have dealt with the complexity it has caused. 

After almost a year of living in the pandemic, consumers have had time to adjust their daily routines, and we’ve seen sweeping changes to everything from shopping behavior to their personal values. Small businesses in particular have overcome tremendous challenges to adapt to those changes

As 2020 comes to a close, we wanted to provide small businesses with a pulse check on how consumers are feeling about everything that’s happened this year, what’s weighing on them most, and what their expectations are in 2021.

To find out, we surveyed 5,000 US consumers (age 18+) from November 19 – December 3 about:

  • How their lifestyle has changed in 2020
  • What small businesses can do to gain their support next year 
  • Their expected timeline for returning to in-person businesses in the future. 

The results convey a guarded sense of optimism that 2021 will begin a slow return to normalcy, but that even more lifestyle changes may be needed if the pandemic eclipses 12 months.

Constant Contact’s Great Recalibration Report

The prospect of a vaccine coming in the near future has consumers cautiously optimistic that they will return to in-person businesses regularly in the first half of 2021

Social distancing, wearing masks and increased sanitation have helped thousands of small businesses stay open this year, and it’s the standard consumers have come to expect. Still, there is no doubt that a vaccine is needed for businesses to safely reopen at full capacity. 

In fact, we asked consumers what it would take for them to feel comfortable going back to in-person businesses regularly, and a COVID-19 vaccine was the most popular response (37 percent). Fortunately, enough progress has been made in recent months that optimism is increasing as we head into the new year.

The world celebrated a major milestone last week when the first COVID-19 vaccines were administered to patients in the UK. After targeted deployment began this week in the US, we discovered that consumers feel confident these vaccines will be effective:

  • 72 percent of consumers we polled said they expect to be back to doing business in-person within the next year. 
  • 52 percent said they would feel safe returning to physical stores or offices in less than six months, with 15 percent already feeling comfortable there. 

This sentiment is positive news for the small business community. It indicates that while the shift to an online-first world is very real, consumers still want to visit brick-and-mortar locations as soon as it’s safe for them to do so. When that time comes, our results show that the restaurant and grocery industries will likely be positioned best for a rebound. 

This is encouraging to hear, particularly for those in the restaurant industry, which was hit extremely hard when social distancing restrictions were put in place earlier this year.

  • 44 percent of consumers said local restaurants, markets, or grocery stores are the first small businesses they will flock to
  • 15 percent plan to visit professional service businesses first, like hospitals or law offices
  • 14 percent will head to local retail stores ahead of other businesses 

Still, the pandemic has likely changed in-person businesses forever. Nearly 10% of those we polled said they would never feel comfortable returning to in-person stores or offices again. This underscores how crucial it is for businesses large and small to build a presence online with things like a mobile-responsive website and an online store, and use tactics like email marketing to nurture their digital community the same way they do at their brick-and-mortar locations. 

While the pandemic will come to an end one day, it has undoubtedly transformed the way consumers live, work, and shop. Business leaders must ensure they are offering the experience that their customers now expect. 

Pandemic fatigue is real, and another six months of social distancing would have consumers ready for a lifestyle shake-up

One of the defining characteristics of the COVID-19 pandemic is that nobody knows how long it will last. While there’s optimism that newly developed vaccines will help curb the spread in early 2021, it’s entirely possible that social distancing and other restrictions may linger into the summer months and beyond. We asked consumers for their thoughts and feelings on another six months of COVID-19 repercussions, and what lifestyle changes they might make in that situation.

With US unemployment rising to its highest level since September, it comes as no surprise that careers and financial status are the top concerns for consumers (23 percent) when asked this question. We also found that if the global pandemic doesn’t subside in the near future:

  • 21 percent would be nervous about staying safe when leaving their homes
  • 20 percent would be concerned about their mental health being negatively impacted 
  • Others expressed concern about continued lack of socialization and travel opportunities (12 percent), the threat of new lockdowns (11 percent) and overall physical health (6 percent).

Business leaders should consider this reality when marketing to consumers — their wallets are feeling more stress than ever this year, and their minds are exhausted from dealing with constantly changing safety regulations and personal crises. It’s important to understand the needs of the individual behind the email address and offer helpful products or services instead of blind sales pitches.

If isolation and social distancing continue into the summer though, consumers are prepared to make real changes to their lives, and that’s where small businesses can aim to help them achieve their desired improvements. 

When asked about their plans, 52 percent would make a major change to their lifestyle, including 19 percent of those individuals saying they would commit to a healthy eating or exercise plan and 16 percent finding a new living situation by either remodeling their home or relocating.

These concerns mark an opportunity for small businesses in vertical markets. The threat of a longer-than-expected pandemic is strong, but consumers’ resolve to push through it is stronger. It all comes back to knowing your customer and finding new ways to demonstrate your value. For example, a longer-than-anticipated pandemic may give financial planners more opportunity to help consumers tighten their budgets, while a desire to relocate is a chance for real estate professionals to offer virtual crash courses in home buying.

Small businesses can expect an outpouring of support in 2021 if the pandemic continues, and consumers have suggestions for how they can provide a positive experience

If the pandemic’s day-to-day impact does linger into or beyond the summer, small businesses should expect far less uncertainty than they experienced at the start of the outbreak. 

Our findings revealed that in an extended pandemic scenario, 72 percent of consumers said they will make more of an effort to support small businesses. Coupled with a strong holiday season, there’s reason for the small business community to be hopeful as we turn the corner into a new year.

Assuming the pandemic does continue into the summer months, we wanted to explore what small businesses should do to improve the experience consumers have when visiting or buying from them. We discovered that some adjustments or innovations made in 2020 were extremely positive, while others should be left behind.

  • Outdoor dining (21 percent) and curbside pickup/in-store pickup (21 percent) proved to be the most popular things businesses tried in 2020, and consumers now expect them to become standard practice
  • Conversely, just eight percent of consumers felt that the in-store capacity restrictions we’ve seen this year should be prioritized in 2021, and only six percent selected online learning as their top preference for the new year

When asked what new idea small businesses should test in 2021, it’s clear that consumers are interested in more creative offerings from their local stores — from packaging related items to establishing a more direct relationship with customers. This presents an opportunity for small business leaders to evaluate what’s most important to their customers and find new ways to deliver that value to them in ways large retailers cannot.

  • 40 percent would like to see small businesses begin offering dinner and movie packages on a regular basis
  • 14 percent are interested in instructional videos from businesses to help them learn a new skill, such as fitness or cooking classes
  • 12 percent would be open to some type of guided tour, whether that’s a virtual wine tasting or in-person outdoor excursion

On a more macro level, almost a year of remote work, virtual meetings and other digital activities has made consumers much more in-tune with their digital experience. That includes how they shop and where their personal data is being shared. When we asked what the most important thing brands of all sizes should do in 2021, we learned:

  • By far the biggest request from users was to keep their personal data secure (30 percent) — even more than fighting the pandemic (15 percent)
  • 25 percent of consumers want a better overall online experience from brands — from allowing them to buy online to keeping their websites current with the latest information

The meteoric rise in online shopping and virtual activities means that entering the new year, businesses should take steps to explain their intentions with customer data, keep it secure, and allow users to opt-into sharing it. This establishes a foundation of trust and ensures a transparent relationship between the customer and the business. Those who prioritize these things can expect to develop even stronger relationships with customers in 2021 and generate more sales as a result.

Power On into the new year

The month of December is typically overflowing with positivity, offering a chance to both reflect on accomplishments from the past 12 months and visualize all the exciting plans to come in the year ahead. In true 2020 fashion, this December feels a little different, but there is still so much to celebrate. 

We continue to be amazed by the ingenuity and positivity our customers have shown in the face of such adversity, and as we look forward to 2021, there is real progress being made to stop the pandemic in its tracks.

Though consumers are growing weary of pandemic-related challenges, small businesses should feel encouraged by their optimism and humbled by their resolve to continue shopping small in the coming year. It’s clear that while the pandemic has caused a massive upheaval to day-to-day life, it hasn’t dampened their appetite for supporting local businesses. Instead, COVID-19 has presented business leaders with an opportunity for more innovation and creative thinking to create a more memorable experience for consumers. 

As COVID-19 vaccines begin their initial rollouts, there is reason for SMBs to be hopeful this December. Those who take action on these trends to better understand their customers will find themselves poised for a rebound in 2021.

Learn more about how you can power on through the pandemic and start selling online with Constant Contact. 

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