The sudden onset of a global pandemic radically changed consumer behavior. Now brands and retailers are wondering how the country’s reopening will affect and change consumer sentiment. While the COVID-19 crisis isn’t over, many Americans are vaccinated, and states across the country have eased social distancing regulations. People are resuming activities that were off limits or undesirable during the height of the pandemic, such as getting together with loved ones, while retaining certain COVID-19 routines, like remote working and indoor mask wearing.
To understand which COVID-inspired consumer changes are here to stay, as well as what consumers are expecting from the next few months, we at Reach3 Insights conducted a mobile messenger-based consumer survey. In May 2021, we engaged more than 800 U.S.-based consumers on their mobile devices and asked them about their feelings, behaviors, shopping preferences and plans for the future. This conversational approach allowed us to collect quantitative data, as well as qualitative insights — such as text replies and selfie videos. Our findings are relevant to drug stores and brands working to create next-generation shopping experiences, build authentic relationships and improve customer understanding.
Facilitate personal connections
Americans are excited to resume the activities they have been missing. According to the study, 48% are looking forward to getting together with family and friends, 43% are craving indoor dining, and 41% can’t wait to travel domestically, whether it is to see loved ones, or seek out adventure. As one participant put it, “I most want to be able to visit with family and friends, and especially be able to hug them, without feeling unsafe.”
For the chain drug store industry, consumer willingness to travel and get together creates new product needs, and stores should reflect this in their merchandizing and messaging. Moreover, a visit to the neighborhood drug store is an opportunity for the in-person connection so many have been craving. Throughout the pandemic, retail pharmacies have played an essential role in people’s lives. In the beginning, they were a go-to for the supplies needed to weather a lockdown or quarantine. In 2021, they emerged as a destination for vaccination — a gateway to resuming a more normal life. Perhaps now, drug stores can be facilitators of the happy moments people have been missing …
Acknowledge life is still different
While people are ready to hug their loved ones, they are less sure about resuming commuter behavior and expect to take public transit less often than they did before the pandemic. Many also expressed a desire to maintain the flexibility and safety afforded from work-from-home arrangements. For drug stores and brands, it is important to keep a finger on the pulse of consumer sentiment, as preferences are fluid. Mask wearing is a great example. According to our study, 57% of people expect to wear a mask as often in November as they did in March. Likely, this belief will continue to change with new CDC guidelines. Drug stores are wise to give consumers a choice in whether they wear masks while in-store. The bigger question arises in what do consumers “need” to go in-store for? What services can be delivered online, and when is it necessary to put the mask on and step inside?
Welcome in-store shoppers but invest in digital experiences
While consumers are craving in-person experiences, they are not about to give up the convenience and safety of e-commerce. Fifty-seven percent are shopping online more now than before the pandemic, and they plan to continue to do so this summer and fall. Other digital behaviors have also increased, with 51% of consumers reporting they plan to continue to use content streaming platforms more often, and 35% predicting they will continue to use video meeting services more than they did before the pandemic.
These findings illuminate an important takeaway for retail pharmacies and their partners: COVID-19 accelerated digital adoption across nearly every facet of life. A previous Reach3 Insights study found that 24% of consumers are using at least one fitness app, while 35% are interested in using one in the future. Organizations must continue to build digital storefronts and would be wise to capitalize on the digital health craze. Drug stores should consider the unique value their apps can offer. For example, they can provide personalized product recommendations based on past purchases and consumer health information and offer virtual pharmacist consultation services. They have the opportunity to connect with consumers as a “wellness center” rather than places people go when they are sick and need health care. Drug stores can offer preventative health care recommendations for creating and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Capitalize on shoppers’ adventurous streak
Forty-five percent of Americans reported trying a new brand during the pandemic, and 85% believe they will continue to purchase that brand or product in the future. In some cases, their go-to product was out of stock. Or a shift in routine changed their shopping needs. For 37% of consumers, the impetus for buying something new was simply a desire to shake things up during quarantine life. The pandemic actually served as catalyst for consumer curiosity and the desire to spend with some frivolity. Consumers were trying and buying new and different things. As such, brands have the opportunity to cross-sell, upsell and tap into these impulse behaviors.
The flipside of the adventurous streak? Brand loyalty is diminishing. Companies need to work harder to retain customers. Brands can use personalized offers that reflect deep customer understanding to drive conversions and strengthen relationships. Customers want meaningful engagements, and they want to feel valued. Brands should be engaging with consumers on the channels they prefer and in the moments that matter to them with meaningful messages. As research and marketing silos converge, brands have an enormous amount of data and insights into the values and opinions of consumers and should act accordingly.
Perhaps more important than strategies and tactics is mindset. Consumer behavior will continue to change as COVID-19 loosens its hold on the country. If the virus surges — or even if it doesn’t — trends will change again. Retail pharmacies and suppliers need processes for continually collecting consumer feedback to understand the stickiness of shopping habits, as well as customers’ fears, needs and desires. Additionally, they need agile processes for responding to those insights. With data and process, drug stores can maintain the trust they have gained throughout the COVID-19 crisis and secure their place in consumers’ post-pandemic lives.
Matt Kleinschmit is founder and chief executive officer of Reach3 Insights.