What will the ‘new normal’ look like? This is a question we’ve been attempting to answer using our ongoing research into the consumer impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

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

Here, we’re taking a closer look at how ecommerce and online shopping is set to continue, and how media consumption is diversifying.

1. Consumers are craving more reliability and convenience.

In the second wave of our research in late March / early April, over 50% of those making regular ecommerce purchases prior to the outbreak said they were spending more time shopping online. 

Crucially, we saw the same from over a third of those who weren’t making regular ecommerce purchases before the pandemic. 

While some consumers might have been driven to this through necessity or boredom rather than choice, we’ve seen a broadening of the ecommerce audience and a diversification of items being browsed / purchased. 

Indeed, while essentials like groceries, household products and personal care items were at top of the list of things consumers were spending more time shopping for, over 10% of those who weren’t previously purchasing online said they were looking for more discretionary items like clothing and cosmetics.

By wave 3 of our research in mid-late April, the numbers who said they planned to spend more time shopping online after the outbreak stood at 45% among pre-existing ecommerce purchasers and 33% among those who weren’t purchasing online regularly prior to the outbreak. 

So, the biggest potential boost is for those already doing it, but the increase among the new converts is still sizable. 

By country, we see the smallest gap between the two groups in China (50% and 45%).

This tells us that already one of the global leaders in ecommerce will see even more advances.

Expectations around online shopping are remarkably consistent across both audiences. Regardless of whether or not someone was purchasing items online regularly prior to coronavirus, there’s a strong demand for deliveries which are free and reliable

In fact, reliability considerably out-ranks speed; consumers would rather have certainty than instant delivery. 

Chart showing online shopping influencers

2. Enthusiasm for online shopping is growing.

With safety weighing so heavily on the consumer’s mind, we might of course wonder whether at least some of the enthusiasm for online shopping is because it offers a way to minimize time spent inside physical retail locations. 

Our research would support this to a degree. About a quarter want to spend more time browsing online in advance of visiting a store, suggesting that “webrooming” will see an increase at least in the short-term (with a consequent decrease in “showrooming”, whereby consumers browse in-store before looking for the best price online). 

Similarly, while a third across the 17 markets say they want to spend less time inside stores or want to visit stores less frequently, the figures rise to around 40% among those who want to buy more items for home delivery or in-store collection. Safety is certainly a contributing factor, then, but it’s not the driving force.

Instead, we might conclude that increased engagement with ecommerce during the pandemic has demonstrated to people that online shopping is a feasible option for a wider selection of products – a trend which would therefore endure beyond the recovery phase. 

When we asked people which items they would be more likely to order online for home delivery or in-store pickup, the obvious contenders top the list (e.g. groceries, clothes) but we still see strong figures for products like personal electronics and smartphones – the latter in particular being a purchase that consumers typically like to test and evaluate in person, given the high financial and emotional commitment involved. 

With more online shopping taking place, and for a wider variety of products than previously, there will be new opportunities to capture customers. For ecommerce specifically, we’ve already noted the importance of free and reliable delivery within this.

But we can also examine the more general factors which people expect to influence their decisions over which brands to support after the outbreak. 

Chart showing factors influencing brand support

Despite the consumer’s obvious financial challenges, it’s interesting that cheap prices are a relatively low priority for all three groups.

This factor does peak at 40% among those who want to spend more time browsing / researching online before visiting stores, indicating that very distinct approaches to shopping could be in evidence. Here though, it’s the only option where the figures don’t vary across the three audiences in our chart. 

Instead, consumers expect to prioritize brands that meet their needs and have sufficient product availability. This resonates with the requirements we’ve already seen around reliable deliveries, indicating that there will be few places to hide for online retailers who get the basics wrong.

3. Media consumption is growing among older generations.

As stay-at-home orders were issued across the world, national populations suddenly found themselves spending large, unplanned periods of additional time in their homes. 

One immediate result was a boom in media consumption, with people turning to traditional and digital media to help pass the time. In some cases, this involved people spending more time on activities they already engaged with prior to the outbreak. In others, it was people trying new things for which they hadn’t previously had the time or inclination.

Since then, a key question has been whether these behavioral shifts will endure into the recovery phase and beyond. 

To help answer this, it’s key to understand how media consumption behaviors have played out during the outbreak itself. 

To ensure a like-for-like comparison, we’ve limited analysis to the 13 countries that were in all three waves (Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Philippines, Singapore, Spain, South Africa, UK, USA). We’ve also looked only at the 18 in-home / media consumption activities that were asked in all three surveys (covering things such as watching more news, reading more magazines, spending more time on music or TV/film streaming services, listening to more podcasts, etc). 

The results show some interesting generational differences. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gen Z and millennials are engaging with the most behaviors – with both generations spending more time on at least 7 different activities. That compares to about 6 for Gen X, and 4-5 for boomers.

Yet, while Gen Z and millennials are ahead, we’re no longer seeing increases in the number of activities with which they’re engaging; figures for millennials are flat, while Gen Z have actually seen a very small decrease. 

Simultaneously, the figures for Gen X and boomers have been increasing. The growth rate for these two older generations is certainly not rapid, but it does give evidence that – as the crisis continues – the media portfolios of these two groups are continuing to diversify.

We see a similar picture via other metrics. Across the 18 different activities under consideration, average engagement levels among Gen Z have dropped from 43% in wave 1 to 37% in wave 3. Conversely, the figures among boomers have increased from 23% to 26%. 

If we look at particular activities, you can begin to see this in a more nuanced fashion. 

Chart showing changing media consumption behaviors

Activities that are perhaps most closely associated with younger generations such as social and streaming have typically stayed flat or seen decreases among Gen Z and millennials. Conversely, they have seen rises – sometimes considerable ones – among the older groups. It’s almost as if Gen Z media portfolios were broadest at the outset and have subsequently shrunk, whereas boomer ones started from a low base but have continued to grow and diversify. 

It’s certainly revealing that, between waves 1 and 3, the boomer figures for activities such as broadcast TV, newspapers and watching news coverage dipped, whereas there were increases for almost all of the more digitally-oriented behaviors (most notably for streaming and social media). 

The longer the restrictions on movement continue, the more we might expect to see this pattern solidify. 

4. Music streaming may see lasting boosts among Gen Z.

Despite this, the question of whether activities will continue to see boosts in the long term remains a complex one. On expressed sentiment alone, it’s clear that all 18 activities should see some uplift. But in many cases, this will be from pre-existing users / engagers. 

If we take music streaming as an example, in wave 3 of our research (April 22-27) it was 15% who said they expected to carry on using them more heavily.

But if we break this down, we find it’s 20% among those who were already using them prior to the outbreak, versus just 4% among those who weren’t already users before coronavirus. That’s still a potential segment of new, long-term customers, but not the transformative figure it might first seem.

Nevertheless, the generational splits are once again interesting here. If expressed intentions translate into actual behaviors, then music streaming will see the biggest boost from pre-existing users among Gen Z. But among new users who started engaging during the crisis, Gen Z, millennials, and Gen X all return figures around the same mark. 

Chart showing music streaming by generation

With a similar pattern in evidence for several other activities too, it suggests that growth among new users might be more age-balanced than expected, and that the overall media portfolios of the older generations will continue to become more diverse.

While we would not expect transformative, overnight shifts in audience profiles, it does seem increasingly likely that the coronavirus outbreak will accelerate the diversification of digital audiences that would in normal circumstances have taken much longer. And that creates numerous opportunities for any brand with a presence on those platforms. 

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Written by

Jason is Chief Research Officer at GWI. He's the main man who leads our global team of analysts, delivering world-renowned research. He's an in-demand data junkie who you might see popping up on your telly screens every so often to show you what's actually happening in the lives of consumers.

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