In the media, photos and videos show large groups of people emerging from COVID-19 shutdowns to participate in graduations, summer swimming parties and other celebrations, as well as crowds participating in protests or political rallies. Less obvious, however, is that most Americans accept that public health measures are still needed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, and that they are willing to continue to follow those guidelines as they participate in more activities outside their homes.
These consumer sentiments, along with the need to protect the health of both shoppers and store associates, means retailers need to be stringent about enforcing social distancing and other safety measures as they reopen. In fact, displaying an abundance of caution will be required to bring many consumers back into physical stores. A large majority of consumers are living in areas where their activities are still somewhat (67%) or very (19%) restricted by state or local regulations, according to the McKinsey’s COVID-19 U.S. Consumer Pulse Survey conducted during the first week of June. For 79% of that group, the loosening of government restrictions is not a sufficient incentive for them to regularly return to stores, restaurants or other out-of-home activities.
While e-Commerce sales have helped some retailers mitigate their revenue losses during the shutdown period, the entire industry will need to deal with a longer-term challenge: an economic slowdown that could last many months.
“Is it possible the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is behind us? Maybe, but we are not out of the woods yet, and uncertainty abounds,” wrote Jack Kleinhenz, Chief Economist for the National Retail Federation (NRF) in the association’s June Monthly Economic Review.
“While this period has not yet been officially declared a recession, it manifests all the signs of one and could be one of the deepest on record. With businesses already beginning to reopen and economic activity resuming, however, the hope is that it will also be one of the shortest,” Kleinhenz added. “Nonetheless, predicting what will happen is even more challenging than usual.”
Consumers Say They Follow Safety Regulations
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surveyed more than 4,000 U.S. adults last month, it found “broad support for recommended COVID-19 mitigation strategies,” with 79% of respondents reporting that they “always or often” keep a distance of six feet or more between themselves and others. Of the 90% of respondents that had left their homes for essential activities during the pandemic, 74% reported that they “always or often” wear cloth face coverings in public.
In a Morning Consult/Politico survey of nearly 2,000 respondents conducted June 6-7, 70% agreed that “Americans should continue to social distance for as long as is needed to curb the spread of coronavirus, even if it means continued damage to the economy.” While support for continued social distancing has gradually declined since March 26, when it was at 81%, it has hovered in the narrow range of 69% to 73% for the past six weeks.
Although there has been some controversy about wearing masks in public, most Americans are willing to do so, according to Morning Consult’s June 11 Coronavirus Outbreak Tracker: “A new poll finds 65% of U.S. adults ‘always’ wear masks when going to public places where they might interact with people, and another 19% do so at least ‘sometimes.’”
Retailers Must Reassure Nervous Shoppers
Consumers have developed new shopping habits during the shutdowns, most notably a greater reliance on e-Commerce, contactless pickup and delivery and mobile payment methods. Owners of the non-essential retail stores that are reopening as COVID-19 restrictions are being eased should note that shoppers expect retailers to operate very differently than they have in the past in order to protect their customers and staff.
According to the McKinsey survey, among consumers in areas where their activities are still restricted by state or local regulations, 19% do not plan to regularly participate in those activities until a vaccine or treatment is available. While 21% are willing to do so as soon as government restrictions are lifted, 60% need more than the government’s go-ahead before they venture out, including the recommendation of medical authorities (31%) and assurances that stores, restaurants and other indoor locations are taking safety measures (20%).
According to Salesforce Research, “shoppers of all generations — particularly those in the 40-plus group — expect stores to enforce mandatory social distancing and PPE (personal protective equipment) policies.” In its May 14-15 poll of U.S. adults, Salesforce found that their top three requirements to return to physical stores were social distancing measures (62%), employees required to wear personal protection such as masks and gloves (57%), and personal protection required of customers (50%).
Getting consumers to feel comfortable with returning to stores “is largely within retailers’ hands,” Salesforce said.
Consumers responding to Resonate’s COVID-19 survey in mid-May provided a similar list of requirements:
- All staff wearing masks and gloves (50%);
- Knowledge that stores would be disinfected each night (48%);
- “Forced” social distancing (46%);
- All customers wearing masks and gloves (45%); and
- Reduced occupancy in the store (41%).
To help retailers implement these actions, as well as to ensure the health of employees, the National Retail Federation has launched a program called “Operation Open Doors – Path to Reopen Retail.” It provides a checklist (free to members and non-members) that retailers can use before and after reopening, including information on signage, protective barriers, capacity limits, preserving six-foot separations, PPE recommendations and details on cleaning and sanitization.
E-Commerce Lifts Grim Retail Forecast
On June 7, eMarketer published its latest forecast for retail sales for the full year of 2020, predicting retail revenues (including auto and fuel) will decline 10.5% for the year. Worse still, the “sector could take years to recover from the impact of the coronavirus, and the hit could be worse than that of the Great Recession.” If eMarketer’s retail sales forecast of $4.89 trillion for 2020 is correct, the industry will fall back to the sales level it had in 2016.
While total retail sales are not expected to climb back up to the 2019 level until 2022, brick-and-mortar retail could take up to five years to return to pre-pandemic sales levels. Fortunately, e-Commerce is outpacing expectations, with 18% growth forecast for this year. “While e-Commerce hasn’t been nearly strong enough to offset brick-and-mortar losses, it is mitigating the severity of retail’s decline,” according to eMarketer.
“Everything we’re seeing with e-Commerce is unprecedented,” Andrew Lipsman, eMarketer Principal Analyst at Insider Intelligence wrote in the article. “Certain e-Commerce behaviors like online grocery shopping and click-and-collect have permanently catapulted three or four years into the future in just three or four months.”
By the week of June 2, e-Commerce sales were 29% higher than pre-pandemic levels, according to the Signifyd Weekly Pulse Report for Ecommerce. In addition, transactions involving curbside pickup and buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) “have regularly been registering more than 200% higher than they did before the pandemic,” Signifyd said
The Adobe Digital Economy Index for May reported as its key finding that e-Commerce shopping levels during COVID-19 were higher than those retailers had seen during the 2019 holiday season. E-Commerce spending for April and May 2020 was more than $153 billion, 7% higher than the $142 billion spent in November and December 2019. Online sales for the month of May were up 78% year-over-year, and Memorial Day alone hit a record-breaking $3.5 billion, 63% higher than last year’s holiday.
Adobe also found that consumers purchased 10% more products through their smartphones in May than they did in January.
“With consumers now having had three months to adjust to ‘the new normal,’ we are seeing signs that online purchasing trends formed during the pandemic may see permanent adoption,” said Taylor Schreiner, Director, Adobe Digital Insights in a statement
The Jungle Scout 2020 Consumer Trends Report, based on a survey of more than 1,000 U.S. consumers, found that 69% of consumers will maintain or increase their online spending even after physical stores reopen. Almost three-quarters (71%) of consumers shopped on Amazon during the pandemic, and 48% of consumers have been shopping more frequently on Amazon since COVID-19 than they did previously.
Unprecedented Uncertainty Ahead
The reopening of malls, restaurants, movie theaters and other public places will provide indications of how the rest of the year will go, but many questions still need to be answered: Will consumers be comfortable going out, and will they spend? Will COVID-19 infections be contained? How will the economy do? Will jobs come back — and at what rate?
One positive sign has been a rebound in consumer attitudes. Experian has been tracking consumer sentiment on a daily basis since late March, when the consumer sentiment index was deeply negative at -17, but consumers have steadily become more satisfied with their situations. In late April, Experian’s index crossed into positive territory, and it was up to +10 in early June. In mid-May, 43% of consumers reported that they were spending less or trying to cut back spending, but that trend had moderated by early June, when only about one-third of consumers were trying to rein in spending.