As we enter the second year of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, the global landscape looks much different than it did in early 2020. Startups and small businesses continue to pivot and adapt their operations to meet both the changing demands of shoppers and the near constant evolution of local regulations. Meanwhile, the average consumer’s personal values and buying habits now include purchasing items online and getting them delivered without ever needing to visit a physical store.
The one-year anniversary of the pandemic also marks a unique point for entrepreneurs hoping to rebound or even grow their businesses in the near future. By now, consumers have adjusted their routines to account for pandemic-related restrictions, but they are also faced with the continued uncertainty of the future. Without the benefit of clairvoyance, it’s fair to wonder how being in this position will impact everything from their mental state to their shopping behavior.
The world is still learning how to live with COVID-19, and while it’s hard to say which changes seen in the last 12 months will last forever, we can be certain that the picture will continue to change in the year to come.
Here’s what entrepreneurs can continue to expect from consumer behavior in 2021:
A cautious sense of optimism
In a December Constant Contact study, most consumers said they are optimistic about being able to regularly return to in-person businesses in the first half of 2021, and 72 percent expected to be back within the next year. This can likely be attributed in part to optimism about the early rollout of the vaccine, which began in late December. However, not everyone wants to go back indoors. Nearly 10 percent of consumers surveyed said they would never feel comfortable returning to in-person stores or offices again.
Entrepreneurs in 2021 can look at this one of two ways: on one hand, they can expect to retain about 90 percent of their customers despite navigating through the largest public health crisis in 100 years. This is an admirable achievement. However, losing 10 percent of your customer base for good may be cause for reinventing the business to better appeal to the modern customer. Adding more consistent digital communications and reimagining the online experience can be terrific ways to regain the loyalty of consumers who aren’t yet ready to step foot inside a store or business.
Either way, this underscores how important it is for business leaders to maintain an accurate picture of who their core customer is, and what’s important to them.
Necessity sparks creative solutions
One positive takeaway from the pandemic has been the creativity and ingenuity that businesses of all sizes have shown. From virtual tasting events to contactless payments, it’s clear that entrepreneurs and small business owners have gotten creative in their efforts to appeal to customers since the pandemic began – and it’s working.
In fact, some of these changes were so popular that consumers now expect them to be the norm even after the pandemic subsides. Small businesses in particular have an opportunity to shine here in the year to come.
The two most popular innovations that consumers would like to continue are curbside pickup and outdoor dining. For retail businesses, offering shoppers a reliable way to click and collect an order without ever entering the store has provided customers with a level of convenience they aren’t willing to give up once pandemic-related restrictions are lifted. Similarly, outdoor dining is mutually beneficial to both the customer and the business. It provides a comfortable and memorable experience for patrons while allowing the restaurant to increase its capacity in a responsible way. Businesses that can recognize these opportunities and adjust their strategies to emphasize them will see their customer retention increase in 2021 and beyond.
Of course, there’s always room for new ideas, and consumers have made it clear that they’d like to see local businesses in particular come up with new and creative offerings this year. For entrepreneurs, it can be helpful to first consider what your customer’s unique needs are and then work to create a new product, service or experience from there. Restaurant owners may want to begin offering weekly dinner and outdoor movie packages or guided virtual tastings, while those selling physical goods could create step-by-step videos showing customers the best applications for their product.
The pandemic has shown consumers that they can (and should) expect more from the brands they support. Business leaders hoping to deliver on that expectation must seek out new ways to provide that value, showcase their personality and build closer connections with customers.
Pandemic fatigue is real
Though the current vaccine rollout provides hope that a pandemic-free future may be coming soon, it’s impossible to say when (or if) things will return to business as usual. In this absence of answers, it’s clear that consumers are feeling pandemic fatigue as they mentally prepare for potentially at least another six months of social distancing and other daily restrictions. While their wallets may be open to buying new products and services, entrepreneurs need to take this into consideration when determining how best to engage with customers.
Traditional email marketing tactics, like list segmentation, can help businesses build targeted audience groups and unique personas, and that’s a great place to start.
We’re also seeing the opportunity for startups and small businesses to begin to experiment with AI and machine learning in their email campaigns to evaluate the needs of each individual customer and deliver the right message at the right time. Consumers now expect this level of personalization, and entrepreneurs are gaining access to the tools that help them provide it simply. Those who prioritize a technology-forward approach and become early adopters will drive results for their business in 2021 and set themselves up for the future.
The way forward
Consumer behavior changed a great deal in 2020 after the pandemic hit, and there’s no reason to expect any change to that trend soon. If anything, businesses of all sizes should anticipate even more shifts in the coming months as hybrid reopenings and more robust vaccination plans begin to take shape around the world.
Still, there are opportunities for entrepreneurs to maintain – and even grow – their businesses in 2021 if they take steps to understand who their customer is and what’s most important to them. Together, those factors will show how their behavior may change this year, and what businesses can do to retain these customers.