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Public feedback on where we are, and how we can move forward.

Avatar photo by Jessica Buchholz, Events Coordinator | February 17, 2021

Every six to eight weeks Emporia Main Street has released a consumer preferences survey. These surveys are an important data collection tool that allows us to communicate the wants and needs of the local consuming public to businesses. The sixth iteration of the survey is particularly insightful, because it is the first version of the survey during limited public access to COVID vaccines. The feedback from consumers not only helps businesses plan for the immediate future, but it may provide some insight to event organizers, health care marketing, and community members. Let’s dive into the changes to this version of the survey and what consumers are telling us:

  1. How do people feel about vaccines?
  2. How do they feel about promotional safety campaigns?
  3. What are the metrics or expectations they have when determining what is “safe” to interact with businesses or activities?
  4. What would they like to communicate directly with businesses?

Let’s start with vaccines and other safety measures:
When asked “do you plan on taking the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available?” Respondents answered 54.1% “Yes”, 14.5% “No”, 10.4% “Not sure”, and 20.8% “I have already received the vaccine (at least one dose)”. The sum of those that answered “yes” or “I have already received the vaccine” equals 74.9% of respondents, with an additional 10.4% that may receive a vaccine but are unsure at this time. The differences in consumer expectations from the four different categories was stark; particularly if you group the “no” and “not sure” versus the “yes” and “I have already received the vaccine”. We will cover those differences in later questions.
In text sections and committee meetings, some alluded to the need for clearer communication concerning who was included in the available vaccine listing at any given time, even if the local folks had to break down the categories into subcategories (example- people over 65 are in group 2A, and those in congregate settings are in group 2B). Those that indicated they had received a vaccine called the process “very organized and fast”. Those that stated they would not receive the vaccine voiced some of their misgivings.
Communication was a common theme from respondents in previous surveys, so survey six allowed consumers to weigh in on the type of public information campaign that would make the respondent more likely to receive vaccinations or increase personal protective measures through the continuing pandemic. Five stock options were made available with a sixth “other” option for user defined information and an additional comments section. The stock options were “direct question and answer sessions with medical professionals through social media channels”, “a campaign that tied lower levels of infections/higher levels of vaccination with the ability for businesses to operate at higher capacities and events to occur”, “testimonials from locals impacted by COVID”, “Community leaders engaged in pandemic safety protocols and support- setting an example”, and “none- we shouldn’t have any type of campaign supporting vaccinations or increased safety protocols”. Among all the participants, the direct Q & A received the most votes (43.4%), the higher levels of vaccinations/safety tied to business capacity and events was number two with 32.6%, the Community Leader and Testimonials were virtually tied for third, and “none” received 9.7% of the vote.When we filtered respondents to only include the “not sure” crowd, only three types of promotional campaigns registered: Direct Q & A with medical professionals and the campaign that ties lower infection rates/higher vaccinations with business capacity and event hosting both tied for first. Testimonials from locals impacted by COVID was a distant second. Community leaders and “none” didn’t register a single vote among those unsure if they would receive a vaccine or not.
When we filtered respondents to only include the “no” crowd, the most common answer was “none- we shouldn’t have any type of campaign”.
We created an open-ended question concerning communication within the business, organizational, and community setting that encouraged respondents to provide their opinions about how we could improve. Text answers broke down into some basic categories: First, consumers wanted businesses to clearly define their safety protocols and to consistently enforce those protocols (if you say that masks are required, make sure everyone is masked up). Second, consistency in reported information between local media outlets, social media, local businesses, and local organizations was stressed. Consumers cited confusion if they heard competing messages. Some consumers wanted the community to set a “goal” that could identify local phases of the pandemic. Many consumers emphasized that businesses and medical professionals needed to “set the example” for the community.
General changes in consumer expectations:

  • More people are either dining out, or expect to dine out within the coming months than at any other time since the surveys started. The answer “I haven’t yet dined out in local restaurants, and I will likely wait more than a few months before dining out again” was selected by 17.7% of respondents.
  • In store shopping numbers remained fairly constant.
  • The most preferred “away-from-home dining experience preferred was still Regular Dine-in Service with 63.5% of the vote.
  • People love curbside restaurant service, and the curbside service as a permanent option received its highest vote percentage (61.4%) since the surveys began.
  • Food delivery trended slightly downward.
  • Grocery delivery expectations were similar to slightly down.
  • Casual online shopping increased, but heavy use of online shopping decreased.
  • Consumers were still more likely to shop from locals online (64.5%) versus major national or global online retailers (17.6%) IF LOCAL MERCHANTS OFFERED THEIR PRODUCTS AND SERVICES ONLINE.
  • Expected safety protocols within businesses remained fairly consistent. The top expectations in order were: “All staff at a store or restaurant wear face masks”, “Masks are worn by all customers in a store”, “Hand sanitizer station at the entrance to the store/restaurant”, “Curbside pickup at shops/restaurants”, and “Strict limitations are set on the number of customers or diners in the space at the same time”. Multiple text responses reinforced that if customers see other customers or staff without masks in a business, they are unlikely to return.
  • 62.5% of respondents indicated that they would be willing to pay more for increased safety precautions in businesses, which is in the range of previous surveys.
  • Large indoor events with social distancing still make people uncomfortable. 66.6% of respondents said that they would be “very” or “somewhat” uncomfortable at a large indoor event versus 29% that would be “very” or somewhat comfortable.
  • Outdoor events (we are assuming when it is not below zero) were more appealing. 53% of respondents were “very” or “somewhat” comfortable attending a socially distanced outdoor event versus 37.5% that were “somewhat” or “very” uncomfortable.
  • When asked what would make people feel more comfortable attending outdoor events, mandatory mask usage, hand sanitizer stations, crowd size limits, low community infection rates, and high vaccination rates were the most common answers.

One concerning aspect of the survey was the inversely proportional relationship between a person’s willingness to engage in enhanced safety versus their willingness to engage in business or community contact. In simple terms, those that had received vaccines or indicated that they planned to receive vaccines were still hesitant to attend events and required heavy safety protocols when interacting with businesses. Those that indicated that they did not plan to vaccinate or weren’t sure were less supportive of business safety protocols and more likely to participate in events. That tells us that event planners will probably have to adopt some zero tolerance policies for upcoming activities to keep them safe. It also means that we will need to engage in “reintroduction” marketing for individuals that have been vaccinated to reintroduce them to community elements in the safest ways possible.
The survey we have referred to is not scientific. People’s opinions don’t have any influence on how a virus will react. You cannot negotiate with a virus or expect it to play by our expectations. We want to communicate public sentiment to keep people as safe as possible, ensure that businesses are meeting customer expectations, and to improve the survivability of our local businesses so that we have a community left when we get to some sort of pandemic resolution.

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.