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New Research: How the Delta Turning Point is Affecting Customer Sentiment and Retail Behavior

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Retailers and marketers who were looking forward to a “more-normal” summer and back-to-school season in 2021 quickly realized that the pandemic rollercoaster had other plans. In fact, the real takeaway from Resonate’s latest wave of its COVID-19 and Emerging Trends Consumer Study is this: Forget “normal.” If retailers and brands can’t monitor and adapt to the real-time impact of evolving news on consumer opinions and actions, they’re going to get left behind. Right now, that’s particularly evident when you look at the effect that the Delta variant is having on American life right now.

For retailers that are racing to capitalize on a successful holiday season, we’re at a critical crossroads. What’s it going to take to make people comfortable shopping in-store? What is the expected experience for online shoppers? Where do the two shopping preferences intersect?

According to Resonate consumer intelligence, while 18% of Americans feel that life is already back to normal, 29% now believe it will take over a year to get there — a 44% increase since June. What’s more, 12% say it will never be back to normal.

The Delta variant is putting a halt to many consumer plans and bringing a return to the rise in concern over health and economic consequences of the pandemic. But this time, there’s a clear divide between those who are resuming caution and those who are resuming business as usual. For retailers, being able to speak to and serve customers in both camps is vital. 

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Let’s dig deeper into these findings and what they mean for retailers and marketers trying to keep pace with consumer needs and wants in this turbulent and divergent moment.

Life, Work and Vaccinations

As of August, more than half of American consumers don’t expect to see a “normal” economy until spring 2022 or later. While about 10% say the economic situation is bad enough that they’re worried about eviction to a moderate or large extent, 45% of Americans believe unemployment benefits should be reduced to encourage job-seeking.

On many fronts, work life looks different these days. Since late April, regardless of Delta, we’ve seen a decrease in work-from-home activity due to the pandemic. However, in just the past month, there was a 16% decrease in the number of employees required to be in-office, and the willingness to attend in-person work meetings slid 8%.

Of course, a lot of consumer attitudes and planning revolves around current vaccination efforts in the U.S. According to our latest data, 18% of unvaccinated American adults still plan to get vaccinated, while 19% say they never will. Among the unvaccinated, safety and side effects are the top-cited hesitations.

Industry Insights for Nimble Retailers

So, what does this sentiment backdrop mean for retailers looking to connect with American consumers? Not surprisingly, pretty much every aspect of consumer shopping behavior is being affected by wide-ranging consumer reactions to the Delta variant.

For retailers, expectations around in-store experiences remain in flux. As of our latest survey wave, we’ve seen a significant increase in pro-mask sentiment since late June, after a 46% drop. In other words, despite the political hype, news cycles and personal feelings about masks, it’s clear that masks help consumers feel more comfortable being out and about.

From an all-time low in late June to mid-August, the number of U.S. consumers who said that wearing masks made them more comfortable in banks, stores, concerts, restaurants and other venues increased 28%. This means that regardless of local government mandates, retailers may want to employ a “soft” mask policy intended to comfort shoppers and keep them in-store and lingering longer.

Beyond that, retailers should endeavor to understand how their best shoppers may feel about masks, cleaning and other pandemic-related interventions. Traditionally, this required a custom survey, but today, enriching a retailer’s CRM with this type of data is a more efficient route — and, the enrichment process could include applying many other useful data points.

Secondly, it’s clear that consumer preferences have shifted permanently. Retailers that identify this opportunity and seize it will keep their customers shopping. For example, the number of consumers who report a desire to browse and buy in a physical store was up 18% from late June to late July. (Since April, in-store clothing shopping specifically has increased 20%.)

At the same time that we observed in-store shopping behaviors rise, the demand for curbside pickup remained consistent. This means that while consumers want flexibility and options, they also demand excellent in-store experiences. Retailers that haven’t already started to map out customer journeys that include hybrid shopping experiences should strongly consider this type of initiative.

We may not be out of the pandemic woods yet, but this resurgence is different. For retailers and brands, that means it’s never been more important to have access to fresh consumer research that keeps pace with the consumer. To successfully drive revenue growth, you’ll need to connect with consumers where they are today — and where they will be tomorrow. It’s clear that the rollercoaster is here to stay, and to thrive, your data-driven strategy needs to evolve. 


Ericka Podesta McCoy is CMO of Resonate, a leading provider of AI-driven consumer data and analytics. She is a global marketing executive focused on enterprise growth and revenue management in the high-tech, telecom, manufacturing, energy, and hospitality sectors across North America, Europe and Asia. McCoy is a change agent, experienced in leading organizations through digital transformation to seize emerging market opportunities. She’s passionate about fostering creativity and innovation and is an evangelist for industry-leading digital marketing practices. 

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