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Consumer Pandemic Trends

Avatar photo by Jessica Buchholz, Events Coordinator | July 23, 2020

The mind of the consumer during a pandemic is difficult to track. Even outside of Covid, trying to guess the wants and needs of your customers can be a full time job. We know that information regarding the pandemic continues to change, and with each new alteration in infection rates, medical advances, news releases, or political talking points the perceptions and expectations of your customers shift.
Emporia Main Street will run a series of consumer perception surveys spaced approximately six weeks apart for the duration of the pandemic. These surveys will help us track any changes in consumer behavior or expectations. We will report findings of the anonymous community members surveyed here, and summarize any shifts or changes that we note from one survey to the next. These reporting mechanisms are designed to help your business or organization more effectively meet the expectations of your customers so you can boost comparative consumer traffic and sales volume.
The following is a summary comparison between version one and version two of our consumer survey. At the bottom of the article, we will include links to the raw data contained in both surveys.

Consumer Restaurant Trends, Question 1: The surveys produced created a spectrum of dining interactions. When broken down into three temporal segments, we can see individuals that have dined out, individuals that plan to dine out in the immediate future, and groups that are delaying dining out within physical locations. When comparing survey one to survey two, we have recorded a significant shift into the category of “have dined out”. This area increased by 13.8% when compared to the last survey. However, almost all of the gains realized came from individuals that “planned to dine out in the immediate future” in the previous survey. When we look at the the third group that is delaying dining out, our single largest category jump was from individuals that answered “I haven’t yet dined out in local restaurants, and I will likely wait more than a few months before dining out again”. This group grew from 19.3% of respondents in the first survey to 30.3% of respondents in the most recent survey. The responses to the dining out question indicates a pretty significant split in the public between those that are actively dining out, and those with no intention of dining out for a long period.
Additional written submissions: There were quite a number of responses that related directly to curbside dining and carryout options. People generally wanted to support local restaurants, and carryout gave them a conduit. Some respondents indicated that they lived with people that were “higher risk”, so they were taking individual steps to isolate themselves (thus, no indoor dining and carryout was their only real option). There were a few individual responses that showcased the need for clear cleaning protocols. If customers don’t see staff cleaning, they get nervous. We had a few references throughout the survey (and the previous survey) that people were nervous being around people that they didn’t know. It seems that many people have adopted a small group of people as a tight social circle they are willing to hang out with, but they get very cautious outside of that circle.
Action Items: Work to make the ordering process easier remotely through online order options or multiple call in lines. Go above and beyond with cleaning, and clearly communicate your protocols to keep people safe through publicly shared safety videos, internal signage, and your basic actions. Highlight areas where you can serve customers that distance them from other individuals (especially outdoor options).

Consumer Retail Questions (non-essential items), Question 2: Consumers have increased their in-store consumer shopping behavior for non-essential items over the past six weeks. We broke down shopping for non-essential consumer goods into three temporal segments, including individuals that have shopped in-store for non-essential items, individuals that are planning on shopping in-store in the near future, and individuals that are delaying shopping for non-essential items in an in-store location. Within the last six weeks 66.9% of respondents indicated that they have shopped for non-essential items in-store, which represents a gain of 21.7% from the previous survey. Though not as pronounced as the dining-in consumer behavior, the majority of the gain came from individuals that stated they were planning to “shop in-store in the near future” from the previous survey. Only 5.5% of individuals in the “delaying” category from the first survey decided to change their shopping behaviors to include in-store shopping for non-essential items in the second survey. 23.9% of respondents still plan to wait a significant amount of time before shopping in-store for non-essential items.
Additional written submissions: Most written submissions tied shopping for non-essential items with clearly stated safety procedures and mask usage. Although a couple of respondents stated that mask usage should be “optional” or that they wouldn’t go into a business that “required masks”, most respondents indicated that they would not patronize a business unless they had a policy requiring masks. Signs that show how you deal with returns, and cleaning protocols were pluses.
Action Items: Post a clearly stated mask policy so individuals know whether or not they support entry into your business (many individuals stated that they would not enter a store unless it required masks, but a few individuals stated they would not patronize a store with a mask requirement; it looks like stores will be forced to choose one or the other). Online options for local retailers can assist people with their ability to browse before they shop. Using signage to detail your cleaning protocols and how you handle returns is very important. Consumers stated in different areas of the survey that they were leery of “other people”. Providing private shopping experiences may alleviate some fears.

Away from home dining experiences, Question 3: Individual consumer support for regular dine in service was slightly weaker compared to the previous survey, with a drop of 1.4%. Support for “reservation only” service dropped by 7.3%. Private event support was slightly weaker, with a drop in 1.1% The largest gain in the away from home dining experience was the “Other” category (up 10%) which we will detail in the additional written submissions below:
Additional written submissions: Almost all of the “other” submissions specifically referred to outdoor dining options. People liked options where they could be outdoors and spaced out. Some respondents indicated that there should be a way to “screen” customers, and people were afraid of large groups showing up “all at once”. Cleaning was emphasized, as was continued curbside service.
Action Items: If you have an outdoor option, advertise it! People still want to support local restaurants, but spaced outdoor dining with a clean environment seems to be a growing preference.

Curbside restaurant options, Question 4: Individual consumer support for curbside restaurant service was stronger compared to the previous survey. An additional 4.4% of consumers supported permanent curbside service from restaurants, and there was a 2.8% increase in support for curbside service until Covid-19 was no longer a threat. Respondents that didn’t want curbside service decreased by 4.1%. Overall, 92.7% of consumers surveyed were in favor of curbside options at present.
Additional written submissions: A lot of the written submissions were big fans of curbside pickup options. The ordering process (ease of online and/or phone orders) is a major component of convenient curbside restaurant patronage. Multiple respondents hoped that restaurants would keep curbside options after the pandemic was over.
Action Items: Make curbside ordering as easy as possible. Make sure that your online menus are accessible and accurate. Investing in tech that makes curbside a better experience for your consumers now, may pay off over the long term. It looks like curbside pickup has staying power as a consumer preference.

Curbside alcohol options, Question 5: A total of 71.4% of consumers within the most recent survey supported curbside alcohol delivery at present. Those supporting curbside alcohol permanently decreased slightly by .5%. Individuals supporting curbside alcohol delivery during the pandemic only, increased by 3.6%. Individuals opposing curbside alcohol delivery decreased by 5.1% compared to the last survey.
Additional written submissions: People seemed mostly supportive of curbside alcohol delivery if it was easy and profitable for businesses. One individual noted that Kansas liquor laws are in need of an update. Another respondent stated that the fact that they were stuck with family more made drive through alcohol options a necessity…
Action Items: Curbside alcohol delivery is a newer option for most consumers. Look to restaurants for best curbside delivery protocols, and find tasteful ways to showcase the service for consumers. Some local businesses have done a stellar job with cocktails and other items that consumers can take home and enjoy, but there is a significant market gap. Many consumers still don’t know that curbside service is available, who is providing it, how to order, and what is potentially provided. If you don’t market the service, consumers won’t know it exists.

Restaurant delivery, Question 6, and Grocery Delivery Question 7: We are lumping the responses to these two questions together, because the responses were essentially the same. Respondents indicated that their preferences for delivery haven’t changed substantially from the last survey. It is important to note that 25% of respondents still note an increase in restaurant delivery, and 25.6% note an increase in grocery delivery from the pre-Covid time frame, but those behaviors aren’t changing dramatically from survey to survey.
Additional written submissions: While the survey seemed supportive of grocery delivery options, the written submissions were less flattering. Many people that lived outside of town indicated that grocery delivery was not an option. Some people preferred curbside pick up options. Others stated that they enjoy doing their own shopping or were particular about produce selection. Although there are significant number of people that enjoy the delivery service, this may take some getting used to.
Action Items: Nationally, grocery pickup and delivery is a growing trend. Preparing systems for curbside or delivery allowance is important. Highlighting the expertise of those selecting items for curbside or home delivery is a necessity to encourage comfort with this growing consumer behavior. Remember, this doesn’t just have to be a grocer to consumer transaction. Many food based businesses have cut back on staff, and delivery services that run business to business can make the lives of many small businesses easier while increasing sales volume for grocery enterprises. Food delivery is difficult for many small businesses, but it may be an opportunity to create “shared” staff positions, or team up with businesses that cannot operate at significant capacity (event venues, bars, etc.) to generate a delivery staff while maintaining margin.

Online shopping shift from regular retailers, Question 8: Shopping shifts from traditional to online is increasing, according to the differential between our two perceptual surveys. While the most popular answer to our Question 8 indicates that 25.8% of consumers are doing “less than 25% of their shopping on-line” and that 12.5% didn’t do “any shopping on-line” while stores were closed, we saw increases in those doing 25-50% of shopping online (up 3.4%) and 50-75% of shopping online (up 6.7%).
Additional written submissions: Most people that wrote additional comments on this survey question stated that they only shopped online when they couldn’t find a product locally. They may have replaced out-of-town shopping trips with online shopping options.
Action Items: Restricted hours and a growing consumer segment that browses online should encourage most businesses to pursue “clicks and mortar” (a store front with an on-line component) as a sales strategy. Attractive sites that are easy to navigate can promote top-of-mind awareness for local businesses.

Online shopping through the pandemic, Question 9: While 42.8% of consumers surveyed indicated that they will either do no shopping or under 25% of their shopping online during the pandemic, the rate of on-line shopping has increased compared to the previous survey. While most answers stayed relatively steady, the number of shoppers doing under 25% of their pandemic shopping decreased by 8.3%, and the number of shoppers doing between 25 and 50% of their shopping online increased by 9.6%.

Additional written submissions: Some respondents stated that they are reducing shopping during the pandemic, including on-line shopping. Others were more “online heavy” for items other than essentials.
Action Items: Remember, some people aren’t leaving their homes for non-essential activities. Your ability to satisfy consumer needs through on-line conduits can help satisfy a local need. Point of Sale system integration that allows you to manage your in-store and on-line merchandise easily is important.

Online shopping through local merchants, Question 10: While 65% of respondents indicated that they were either “somewhat” or “very likely” to shop online through local merchants, we saw consumer preferences for local online options slip a bit compared to the previous survey. Those “somewhat unlikely” to shop online through local retail portals increased by 2.4%, while those “somewhat likely” to shop through online retail portals decreased by 3.2%. Those “very likely” to shop through local retailers online increased a modest 1.5%.
Additional written submissions: The quality of the merchant website, ease of use, and fees added were major factors in the decision to support local merchants through online portals. Many individuals stated that they would rather support local businesses “face to face”.
Action Items: You can’t just say “we have stuff you can buy” and call it a shopping website. Your site must be attractive, easy to use, and contain accurate inventory numbers. Most people shop with local businesses because of the experience, so you need to find ways that you can communicate with online customers and make their shopping experience as pleasant and personable as possible.

Internal business operations and amenities, Questions 11 and 12: We asked consumers about specific safety amenity precautions businesses could take, and how those precautions correlated to patronizing that particular business. All safety precautions listed showed either a net positive or net neutral change compared to the previous survey. Three safety protocols scored fairly low (requiring all staff to wear gloves, membership options for restaurants/retailers, and gloves given out to all consumers), but all other safety recommendations made consumers more likely to patronize a business. Hand sanitizer available for patrons, masks worn by staff, outdoor options for shopping/dining, online menus/inventory (THAT ARE ACCURATE), strict limitations on the amount of customers in a space, curbside pickup options, and online shopping options with in-person pickup were the most popular safety amenities that encourage patronage of local businesses. The three amenities that changed the most in positive perception between the first and second survey were: Posted notifications on what the business was doing to keep people safe (these need to be CLEAR and CONCISE), Plexiglas barriers that separate staff and patrons at checkout, and masks worn by ALL customers in a store.
Additional written submissions: People really don’t like gloves… Cross contamination was a concern. Many respondents wrote about comfort being achieved through multiple layers of safety amenities (hand sanitizer, cleaning, masks, etc.). Proper and consistent mask usage was stated multiple times. Some individuals expanding upon their survey thoughts wanted clear and concise expectations stated on the entry of businesses.
Action Items: Clear and concise signs, overt cleaning practices, access to sanitizer, and mask usage are all things that businesses should strongly consider using. Training staff about proper usage of PPE and cleaning protocols are a must. Make sure your online information (website and social media) is accurate. Plexiglas barriers are becoming a more popular consumer preference, and we have some local businesses that can act as suppliers.

Paying more at businesses for increased safety precautions, Question 13: As more consumers interact with local businesses, they are evidently more likely to support price increases associated with safety precautions. Those willing to pay more for goods and services in businesses that implement safety precautions increased 9.6% versus the previous survey (68.7% overall), versus an 8.8% reduction of those unwilling to pay extra for safety precautions (29.4% overall). An additional 1.7% failed to answer this question.
Action Items: People aren’t generally a fan of paying more for anything, but our survey indicated that if people could clearly understand all you were doing to keep an area safe, they were more likely to support an increase in prices.
Comfort level attending a large indoor event, Question 14: We saw a fairly significant change in consumer expectations from the first survey to the second in regards to comfort level for large indoor events. “Very uncomfortable” was our most popular answer during the first survey, and the second survey added 9.6% to the number one answer. A total of 78.6% of those surveyed indicated that they were either “very” or “somewhat uncomfortable” attending a large indoor event. Those that indicated they were “very comfortable” decreased by 7.9%.
Additional written submissions: Individuals were not in favor of large indoor events. Some stated that if there were extreme distancing, and masks were mandatory, that they may consider attending a larger indoor event. Others noted that they didn’t trust others to maintain distancing and mask usage indoors.
Action Items: Consumers don’t seem comfortable with indoor options for events yet. Maybe when infection rates go down and consistent mask usage is more ingrained in the general public we will see this perception change? Limiting crowd size, requiring distancing, and taking other overt safety measures may make things more palatable. Private events (that still require everything previously stated) are another option. Finding ways that your business can adopt an outdoor area to provide your goods and services (while still adhering to distancing/safety guidelines) is another option.

Comfort level attending a large outdoor event, Question 15: There was another shift in comfort level for outdoor events, though not as pronounced as indoor. While indoor events were clearly off the table for most, outdoor events fell somewhere in the middle with respondents answering “somewhat uncomfortable” and “somewhat comfortable” as their top two answers (just like the previous survey). “Somewhat uncomfortable” gained significant ground (12.5%) while “very comfortable” lost the most ground (-9.3%).
Additional written submissions: More written submissions indicated support for outdoor events, but people expressed a distrust of others to wear masks, distance, and follow the rules.

Action Items: Outdoor events were more palatable than indoor events for the consumers surveyed. Mask usage, distancing, and other safety protocols were emphasized within written submissions. Those that acted in a way that seemed “unsafe” drove people away that would otherwise patronize a business or event.
Other suggestions from those that took the survey: Individuals expressed disappointment in businesses that didn’t update their hours online, through social media, or on their storefront. More outdoor dining and shopping options were requested. Consumers showed little patience for businesses that ran out of supplies like hand sanitizer, or failed to clean items (like carts). Consumers liked online ordering options through local businesses, but stressed that information (inventory, specials, etc.) should be correct and the process should be easy. A LOT of people cited their desire for mandatory mask usage. Several respondents expressed their tremendous gratitude for local businesses that are going above and beyond to keep their customers and staff safe.
Overview:CLICK HERE for the link to the newest survey responses. CLICK HERE for the link to the previous survey responses. We will run new surveys in six week intervals as we continue to test consumer preferences, and their changes, as they relate to businesses during the pandemic. Once we have the opportunity to sort the data, we will communicate our findings to members and the community through this forum. Once we have three sets of data (after the next survey) we will most likely graph responses a little differently to highlight trends.

About the Author

Jessica Buchholz, Events Coordinator

Jessica Buchholz is the Community Development Coordinator for Emporia Main Street in Emporia, Kansas. She specializes in event planning, volunteer recruitment, alternative marketing, media/public relations and fundraising. During Jessica's tenure at Emporia Main Street, she has helped grow events to an international level and she has created a series of new activities to meet organizational goals.


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