Public spaces won’t be the same for a while, if ever.
Large gatherings we thought nothing of in February are now memories. No outfit is complete without a mask. Amid obstacles, businesses are tasked with creating public spaces people are comfortable in.
GlobalWebIndex examined how confident consumers are to return to public spaces. GWI, a market research SaaS company, provides audience insight to marketers, media agencies, and publishers worldwide. GWI’s findings give a peek into public perceptions of returning customers, and a path brands can follow to foster confidence. Successful integration post-coronavirus in the Asia Pacific region gives a blueprint.
As GWI predicted in March, optimism encourages greater intention to make life in public spaces work. As COVID-19 first struck APAC (Asia-Pacific), the region found itself leading the world through the move toward normality. It hasn’t been a bumpless journey, but four of the top five optimistic nations for recovery are in APAC. Internet users in APAC are upbeat about their nation’s recovery. Europe, behind APAC in the process, finds less optimism overall (45%). In some spots (France and Spain), the figure is lower (32%).
The pessimism for progress isn’t limited to France and Spain.
Is your country pessimistic? It’s not set in stone. In April, 30% of APAC internet users said they’d return to shops immediately or very quickly after reopening. By May, it rose to 40%. APAC nations had then fallen out of the top 10 for confirmed coronavirus cases. One exclusion: Japan, home of the postponed Tokyo Olympics. For a nation that didn’t suffer as much as others, uncertainty prevails: 12% are optimistic about recovery, and 60% have an unfavorable mindset. How much does prime minister Shinzo Abe’s irresolute approach sway his nation’s cynicism? And how might his recent resignation impact it?
Perhaps a distrust in government response is stronger than fears of the actual virus.
APAC knows life behind the mask. East Asian countries commonly used masks to stave off infection, especially during the 2002 SARS outbreak. It’s not something the world is accustomed to – but it could adjust.
Who is coming back?
Wave 4 of the GWI COVID-19 survey saw categories of returning consumers emerge, based on the speed at which they move back into the general public. Four in 10 Baby Boomers are ready to shop; Their grandkids in Gen Z are too, a mere 9 percentage points ahead.
Intergenerational shopping is one thing; packing into indoor and outdoor venues for events is another. Baby Boomers show pause (1 in 3 ready to return) and Millennials lead the way (2 in 3). Across each market, however, the difference is less pronounced for large venues. Perhaps it’s not an age thing after all. Broken down, 72% of immediate returners see their country’s emergence in a positive light, and 75% of quick returners agree.
Those who expect to return slowly to public spaces ring in at 59% optimism.
A community’s advancement from one stage to the next in public life seems to nurture hope. Immediate returners and slower returners share similar levels of concern for their home countries. That’s a good sign across the board. Consumers aren’t flying back into shoulder-to-shoulder shopping without regard.
As with APAC, an upbeat take on their community’s ability to bounce back makes them more likely to get back in the marketplace sooner. Business’ role in that attitude is crucial.
How can we make the consumer comfortable?
Rather than hope for consumer confidence, businesses can lessen worries by ensuring a safe experience within their doors. Brands can’t ignore the threat of a second coronavirus wave in the west, especially as school opens in some form.
With this wait-and-see attitude, how can businesses raise at-risk demographics’ confidence in a safe shopping experience?
A segment of at-risk patrons – with conditions such as diabetes and hypertension – intend to get back in the store as soon as possible (40%). Rather than alienate these shoppers with disregard, retailers have an opportunity to strengthen their resolve to get back out. Cleaning and other safety measures are a big priority: 64% of high-risk shoppers want shopping spaces cleaned regularly, and those in the 45-64 age range check in at 72%.
Regardless of health risks, cleaning is non-negotiable for most ready to shop again. Slow returners (75%) rank cleaning as No. 1 in safety, and half of the shoppers who want to return ASAP share that sentiment.
As much as everyone agrees on cleanliness, the mask debate has much more division. That makes defining a clear code for the green light sometimes difficult.
Quick returners (40%) don’t place the premium on mask mandates that their slow-returning counterparts do (66%). Most stores require masks, although mandate enforcement can be lax. Even the mask-effectiveness detractors can scarcely venture into public without one. Cautious shoppers also prioritize access to hand sanitizer more than others, but not miles ahead of the quick-returning crowd.
Gloves don’t have as much of a hand in the matter. Regular cleaning and accessible sanitizer appear more important than gloves – as are social-distancing measures and limits on capacity in buildings. In hospitality, a slow-to-recover industry with business travel stalled indefinitely; creating a safe environment is step 1 to boosting trickling traffic.
stayAPT, a regional chain of longer-term stay hotels, faced that uncertainty.
As a new brand, stayAPT had to develop its own brand space, while adjusting to COVID-19 adjusted life. The Brandon Agency is helping to develop a cleaning program to reassure customers their rooms are safe and clean.
A tangible example: doors are sealed shut before check-in and after house cleaning has checked a comprehensive list of cleaning protocols. Extra measures like this can help ease customer anxiety about being out and about.
The Brandon Agency conducted extensive research, through sister agency Fuel Travel. They learned customers feared contracting COVID-19 as a result of staying in a hotel, said Scott Brandon, CEO of The Brandon Agency.
“Throughout the pandemic, the extended stay segment had actually performed well compared to the traditional leisure and business segments due to the need to house essential workers and people still needing shorter term living options for their work,” Brandon said. “Knowing this, we wanted to develop a program that proactively informed our StayApt guests that the brand was taking aggressive action to provide a clean and safe suite for their guests. This was our chance to make a statement about our commitment and our level of caring about guest safety.”
The Brandon Agency also helped to provide stayAPT with a contactless check-in and keyless entry system for all properties.
“Now, a guest can check-in and go directly to their room without ever coming in contact with another person,” Brandon said. “This was a huge step.”
Immediate returners would like businesses to stay open longer hours (32%), much higher than the average internet user. Slow returners are far less concerned about extended hours (16%) than hygiene and social distancing. Those more careful about safe surroundings are more likely to take advantage of retailers’ early at-risk shopping hours and capacity limits.
We’re sanitizing – what else can we do?
A safe spot draws consumers back in; a safe experience will bring others out, too, and encourage safe behavior on the sales floor. Not that it’s simple to adopt these measures. It’s critical to spread the word with active social media. All those who aspire to shop the old-school way want to hear from businesses through ads and social media. Immediate returners (66%) and slower returners (63%) feel similarly.
Businesses, take note: You cannot overstate your intent on keeping consumers safe. They want to hear it. Retail therapy might not be ready to reemerge, yet, but shoppers can take steps toward more normalcy if they feel safe.
What should your business do?
Based on these reports, The Brandon Agency suggests these five steps to help customers feel more comfortable in your retail space.
1. Declare your plan for safety
Craft a plan for a safe, sanitary marketplace for your customers. Outline this on social media, on your website, in direct mail. Offer early-morning hours for at-risk guests. Detail your schedule of cleaning and social distancing. Let customers see the cleaning happen when they visit.
2. Stay strong on masks
The mask issue remains divisive in many markets. We suggest implementing guidelines for staff to wear them, and strongly suggest customers do also. Offer a touchless or online shopping experience for those who choose not to wear a mask in-store.
3. Consider extended hours
Many businesses opt for truncated workdays to combat exposure. With a solid cleaning and shift plan in place, you can position your business to capture traffic when others’ doors are closed. This will also help alleviate a rush of customers trying to get in during business hours.
4. Audit your social message and voice
Throughout the pandemic, consumers have appreciated a human tone with empathy that isn’t pressing for sales. Review your social media plan and scheduled posts. Trust an agency that has helped many other businesses find the pace and tone that fits them best to navigate confidently while assuring their customers they’re in it for them.
5. Anticipate your customers’ hardships
Tracy Vreeland is public relations specialist at Santee Cooper, South Carolina’s state-owned electric and water utility. She said many customers fell behind on bills because of the pandemic. Santee Cooper responded with relief.
“In March, we suspended cut-off for nonpayment, waived late fees, and provided payment extensions,” Vreeland said. “As we started returning to normal operations in June, we offered payment plans to anyone who had fallen behind. We continue to work with some of those customers. Many are back on track.”
To offer such assistance can build lasting trust between a customer and brand. An agency must “see around corners” and anticipate what’s coming, Scott Brandon said.
“In the early 1990s, we saw that the internet would fundamentally change the way consumers plan and book travel,” Brandon said. “Because most of our clients were independent hotels they did not have the big budgets to develop software that would allow them to sell their room inventory in real time online. So, we wrote that for them. When the time came, they were ready.”
“Same with the app that we have developed for contactless check-in and keyless entry. We continually monitor trends and data that help us see these potential hardships and then develop solutions that will help our clients thrive in hard times.”
The Brandon Agency has helped brands get through tough times – and thrive as a result. Let’s talk today about how we can work with you on your campaigns and to find solutions to the challenges you face.