Gartner’s Consumers and Culture Research Team recently surveyed consumers about their household spending in response to the pandemic. “Projecting COVID-19 Impact: Spring 2020 Consumer Spending Outlook” (subscription required) was fielded between March 18-20, 2020 as part of our ongoing effort to understand consumer behaviors and attitudes in this crisis. Within a week of gathering this data, nearly 160 million Americans were under stay at home orders. A little more than two weeks later, roughly 95 percent of Americans would find themselves living, working and caregiving nearly exclusively in and from their homes. (“See Which States and Cities Have Told Residents to Stay at Home,” NYTimes.com)
Turns out, in all but one category we asked about, from streaming services to clothing to personal electronics, the majority of consumers told us they anticipated making no changes to their spending. (The only category where “no change” wasn’t the majority answer was “takeout food or food delivery from restaurants. ” Yet, even in this area, a plurality of consumers anticipated no change in their spending.).
You read that right: On the eve of what have surely become the most surreal weeks of their lives, most consumers anticipated spending as usual.
Why would they think this way?
For starters, can any of us really say we know how to prepare for an unprecedented and unspecified amount of time at home? In the absence of information, planning to hold steady is probably a rational reaction.
Second, consumers may not have known enough about their own consumption to realize that their spending would need to change. American households rely on a Just In Time approach to inventory. In the pre-coronavirus world consumers were making, on average, 1.6 trips to the grocery store per week according to FMI’s US Grocery Shopper Trends 2019 report. Sure, pre-crisis, some consumers tracked not only how much they spent on toilet paper, but also how many rolls they went through per person per week. But most just focused on the spending. As toilet paper expert and president of United Converting (which sells toilet paper manufacturing equipment) Dan Clarahan explained in a remarkably prescient article about toilet paper in the New York Times at the end of February, “Generally, people do not pay attention to sheet count.”
Perhaps most importantly, US consumers are likely hoping beyond hope not to have to change to their spending. Consumers have had very real concerns about coronavirus. At the end of March, 7 in 10 consumers told us they were worried or very worried about it. And they’re feeling real economic impacts. In fact, in late March roughly half of consumer said their income had already been negatively affected by the pandemic. And yet, it seems consumers just could not or would not conceive of a situation so bad that they’d have to make adjustments.
How should marketers think about this reaction?
Consumers are seeking security and comfort. That was true before the crisis (at least as measured by a decade’s worth of consumer values data). It’s even more true now. In uncertain times, trusted brands can represent security and comfort for consumers.
Marketers should lean into the aspects of their brand values that speak to stability. That starts with clarity and transparency in communications. Make promises that your brands can consistently keep (even if that means setting the bar low – better to surpass expectation than fall short). And when there’s an authentic story to tell about how your brands are providing stability and support for people at the front line of the fight (healthcare workers, but also essential retail workers and delivery people), tell it.
In the end, marketers should see consumers’ anticipation of “no change” as a longing for “no change” and adjust brand positioning and messaging accordingly.