As some countries begin to ease their restrictions, there’s one inevitable question everyone’s asking: what does the ‘new normal’ look like?

We’re uniquely placed to look at how a diverse range of audiences have reacted, and how their pre- and post-outbreak behaviors are likely to compare. 

In this two-part series, we leverage the three waves of dedicated multi-market research we carried out in recent weeks. In this part, we focus specifically on the role of convenience and safety in boosting sustainable behaviors, and the public’s attitude towards returning to out-of-home leisure activities.

In part two we focus on ecommerce and online shopping, and how media consumption is diversifying.

Key questions around behavior changes

After months of uncertainty and limitations, businesses globally are searching for answers to pertinent questions: 

  • How will consumers behave once their market moves firmly into the recovery phase? 
  • Will they start buying the purchases they’ve been delaying? 
  • Will travel begin to get back to normal? 
  • Will people return straight-away to the locations that had been closed straight away? 

In short, what will return to previous patterns and what will be changed permanently? 

The specifics of any ‘new normal’ will vary significantly between markets, regions, and demographics. 

How a country or audience behaved before the outbreak will have an impact, and so too will the degree to which it was affected. We also need to factor in how long it took to recover, and what – if any – national measures are put in place in the post-outbreak landscape.

Above all, we need to be cautious of assuming any automatic continuation of behaviors which were acquired or boosted during an unprecedented crisis like this. 

Consumers are in unchartered territory, often being required to do things out of necessity rather than choice. 

We’ve analyzed what consumers intend to do once this ‘new normal’ comes into play, leveraging our research from March and April across 17 countries

Here’s what we found. 

Consumers plan to behave in more sustainable ways – but not for environmental reasons.

From sector to sector, one particularly striking finding from our research is consumers intend to behave in more sustainable ways.

Before the outbreak, it would be fair to say climate activists were gaining more traction and organizations, governments and companies were coming under sustained pressure to make increased environmental commitments.

But the intended move towards more sustainable behaviors that we’re now seeing doesn’t appear to be driven by this. It’s not just green or eco-conscious audiences expressing this sentiment – it’s a universal, cross-demographic trend.

Let’s look at travel as an example:

About 80% of consumers expect to change their travel behaviors in some way.

Around 3 in 10 will be taking more staycations, a similar proportion will take more domestic rather than foreign vacations, while around a quarter expect to take fewer vacations. 

Certainly, “greener” consumers are at the forefront of more sustainable travel plans: those interested in environmental issues have a consistent lead over their counterparts who aren’t interested. 

The gap is far from sizable, though – and that’s arguably the more important thing here.  

Chart showing post-outbreak travel plans

We find a similar pattern elsewhere. For example, people interested in their local area are most likely to be planning staycations; but the difference vs those who are not interested in their local area is very small. 

Elsewhere, regular domestic vacationers are not much ahead of infrequent ones when it comes to planning more staycations. Strikingly, a fifth of people who never had domestic vacations before the outbreak are now planning to take staycations.

Staycations

Long-haul vacationers follow a similar trend. Almost 40% of those who take two long-haul vacations per year are planning more domestic trips or staycations.

If environmental concern is not the driving factor here, then what is?

Cost is certainly an influencer – and it’s worth noting that about a quarter say they plan to make more use of promotions or discounts when booking future travel. 

Even so, the two least popular answers for post-outbreak travel plans are to do with cost: taking cheaper vacations (15%) and taking more budget airline flights (10%). And it’s likely that the desire for promotions taps into a wider theme we’ve observed where value for money is top of mind – with people of all income groups wanting to feel like they are getting a good deal. 

Rather than financial or environmental concerns, then, this appears to be about safety and reassurance. 

When asked what would give them the confidence to start booking trips again, by far the most popular answer was, “when I feel it’s safe to travel” (58%). 

Vacationing in the local area or in one’s own country is very clearly part of the reaction to this. Those planning more domestic trips (68%) or staycations (65%) are the most likely to say it’s a feeling of safety that will prompt them to start booking again.

Generally, people constantly think their own country will cope better and recover more quickly than elsewhere. Domestic travel is also usually less disruptive and costly if it gets cancelled, as well as easier to resolve if an issue arises during a trip.  

In short, this desire for safety and certainty is almost unconsciously driving consumers towards more sustainable travel choices. 

While those who care most about the environment are still at the forefront, other consumers are now following more closely behind what we might once have expected.

Safety is top of mind as consumers plan to be more risk-averse.

In question after question, consumers express a desire to to minimize their exposure to risk. 

When asked what they want from essential stores, for example, safety-oriented options topped the list (with ways to enter or exit locations as quickly as possible recording the highest score of all).

Safety concerns are also leading people to say they’ll make slow returns to locations once they reopen their doors. Almost 50% say they’ll not visit shops “for some time” or “for a long time”. 

Almost 60% say the same about large outdoor venues such as stadia, approaching 65% for large indoor venues such as cinemas and concert halls. 

Of course, whether it’s vacationing closer to home or visiting nearby locations less frequently, many consumers aren’t necessarily striving to reduce their mobility in order to decrease their carbon footprint. 

Nevertheless, many of the changes that people intend to make as a result of the outbreak are less impactful on the environment. 

And this trend is catalyzed further by those convenience-based changes in behavior which people want to make too – such as the 1 in 4 who plan to work from home more frequently, or the 4 in 10 who’ll do more of their shopping online.  

The question of whether these behaviors will eventually start to revert is difficult to answer. In the long-term, we might expect convenience-driven shifts to strengthen further; after all, if the ‘new normal’ is better, why change back? 

In contrast, safety-driven shifts – especially for travel – are likely to be more susceptible to reverting over time. 

The challenge for domestic tourism players as well as environmental groups will be to highlight the financial, economic, sustainability and experiential benefits of the short-term shifts to the consumer, capitalizing on the ‘unconscious sustainables’ segment that will be at its largest and strongest over the coming months. 

They’ll think twice about out-of-home leisure spending.

During the long weeks of enforced stay-at-home orders, consumers have had to go without their usual out-of-home leisure moments. 

Once restrictions are lifted, though, it’s far from certain whether we will see an automatic return to pre-pandemic behaviors. 

In the short-term, there will be two challenges to overcome. First, there are the safety concerns we highlighted above. 

If we look at cinemas as an example, there will be some comfort for venues that regular movie-goers are the most likely to return immediately or very quickly.

Chart showing return to large indoor venues

This is a pattern we see elsewhere, too: ‘regular’ or ‘dedicated’ segments are the most enthusiastic about returning to normality.

Even so, with just over half of regular cinema-goers saying they will return to large indoor venues immediately, very quickly, or quite quickly, that still leaves a third of the core audience who don’t plan to return promptly, and a further 1 in 10 who aren’t sure. 

So, while venues can rely on many of their most dedicated customers leading the return once they reopen, this segment is likely to be diminished in size unless they are convinced otherwise through careful messaging and reassurance.

The other short-term challenge to overcome is spending cuts: 4 in 10 consumers say they plan to cut back on the day-to-day things they buy and 1 in 3 will look to reduce their monthly financial commitments. 

People who regularly drink alcohol, eat fast-food, eat out at restaurants, or visit the cinema are in line with general trends here. 

But if we then look at specific leisure-related changes they might make, the ‘regular segments’ are often slightly ahead of average for planning reductions. 

Across the 17 markets it’s 29% who say they plan to visit bars and pubs less often. But among regular alcohol drinkers, this rises to 33%. 

For fast-food, 31% overall plan to eat at such outlets less frequently; among regulars, this ticks up to 35%. 

In fact, if we take the fast-food and restaurant audiences as the examples, it’s the customers who were previously most loyal who are the most likely to plan a reduction.

Chart showing planned reduction in leisure behaviors

With many consumers looking to make financial savings, it’s understandable that the most dedicated segments for each activity are the most likely to be considering spend reductions. 

But it’s a sign that people are open to finding reductions within their regular or favorite activities just as much – if not more than – the things they do less frequently. 

When viewed in parallel with the hesitations over returning to public locations, we can see the scale of the short-term challenge facing out-of-home leisure providers. Reassuring consumers on two fronts – safety and value for money – will be key, and it’s probable that we will see the emergence of a highly promotion-oriented mindset.

Arguably, though, it’s the longer-term challenge which is more complex. 

Financial or safety-based concerns can be tackled; it’s not so straight-forward addressing new or changed behaviors that people acquired during the lockdown period and intend to persist with afterwards.

As we noted earlier, in recent weeks, people have had to find alternatives to their usual out-of-home leisure moments. 

Our research shows that 46% of regular fast-food eaters and 49% of regular restaurant-goers have been spending more time cooking.

It also reveals that 55% of regular cinema-goers have been watching more shows and films on streaming services. And that 44% of regular alcohol drinkers have been spending more time socializing as a family or household.

This pattern continues when we ask people which behaviors they expect to retain in the future. 

Here we find that close to a quarter of restaurant and fast-food regulars plan to carry on spending more time cooking. A quarter of regular alcohol drinkers expect to spend more time socializing as a family or household, and almost a third of frequent cinema-goers plan to carry on using streaming services. 

This trend spreads to other out-of-home leisure moments too – sometimes dramatically, as with the 1 in 2 regular gym-goers who say they plan to spend more time exercising at home (with 15% going as far as planning to cancel a gym membership). 

In many of these examples, the audiences in question are a little ahead of average. But in some places, we see significant leads:

Only 1 in 5 globally say they expect to carry on watching more content on streaming services. 

This makes the 1 in 3 among regular cinema-goers particularly noticeable. Similarly, it’s 4 in 10 overall who plan to spend more time on in-home exercise; the jump to 1 in 2 among regular gym-goers is once again conspicuous. 

It suggests that after leisure providers have addressed immediate concerns over safety and money, the longer-term challenge will be to demonstrate the benefits and exclusive perks and offers obtained through visiting their venues. These simply can’t be replicated at home or via other proxies. 

Anticipate change, but don’t rely on predictions

We’re dealing with expressed sentiment captured during extraordinary times here. Not all of this will translate into reality, but the intent held by consumers at the moment is important in itself. 

Otherwise, what started as a necessity during stay-at-home restrictions could become a preferred alternative in the ‘new normal’ landscape.

In part two of this series, we discuss the importance of reliability in ecommece, and the diversification of boomer and Gen X media consumption.

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Written by

Jason is Chief Research Officer at GlobalWebIndex. He oversees the global research and insight teams, directs the world-leading research study and specializes in analyzing consumer trends. He writes for titles like the Huffington Post and MediaPost and is a frequent contributor to stories on media outlets such as BBC News, CNN, the Guardian, Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg.

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