How uncertainty from the pandemic impacts consumer behavior

NRF 2021 – Chapter 1: WGSN’s Andrea Bell on consumer sentiment and how it’s driving behavior

NRF’s virtual event, NRF 2021: Retail’s Big Show — Chapter 1, is happening now through January 22. Register here to view this session and more on demand.


For retailers ready to transition from a place of fear to a place of hope, trend forecasting authority WGSN offers a bit of a strategic road map.

Andrea Bell, WGSN director of insight, presented “Consumer Behavior: Making Sense of the Aftermath of Uncertainty” as part of NRF 2021: Retail's Big Show – Chapter 1. Drawing from a white paper prepared for NRF, Bell explored two consumer sentiments expected to have global impact into 2023 — time perception and numbness — as well as a couple of future consumer groups.

Time perception is the idea that pandemic-induced uncertainty has altered our grasp of time, changing memories and giving rise to a renewed focus on an idealized past. Time has become elastic and seemingly nonexistent, she noted, and in 2020, “days seemed to drag on, while months seemed to pass in the blink of an eye.”

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Check out NRF 2021: Retail's Big Show — Chapter 1 here.

There’s been a collective focus on how to pass time, how to make the most of it and how to endure it. Along the way, nostalgia has served as an anchor, and consumers have returned to products and experiences that feel comfortable and familiar.

Conversely, the consumer sentiment of numbness highlights how emotional turmoil throughout the past year has given rise to unique coping mechanisms as people look for ways to feel and heal. The year has led to a spectrum of “intense emotional clutter,” she said, “from fear to outrage, joy, grief.” All of that drives a sense of FOFO (fear of finding out) and apprehension of what’s to come. Numbness is the psychological response. So, too, is compassion fatigue, when so much has been given that there’s simply nothing left.

Bell, however, was careful to note that it’s not all doom and gloom. By 2023, she said, new coping mechanisms will be in place. Structured caring is one example — “learning to step back and objectively examine every piece of information and determine the appropriate response, instead of having a knee-jerk reaction.” Focusing our caring efforts drives down emotional fatigue and improves results.

Those emotional reserves, she said, will be key for one particular consumer group: The Predictors. In seeking stability and security, this group will adopt a recessionary mindset and a “proceed-with-caution spending mentality,” whether or not they have disposable income.

They also will be challenged by a widening attention divide. For this group, the future is auto-refill/auto-replenishment, subscriptions, pre-order and seamless savings (such as offerings that check for and apply discounts).

The New Romantics is another consumer group, one focused on reconnecting with emotions, community and work/life balance. Here, there’s an interest in sustainability and diversity. Connecting with the New Romantics will require “ritual rapture,” helping them create stronger emotional ties with their days and their surroundings.

Other strategies include psychedelic/mood-altering solutions such as CBD offerings and “mind-elevating food and supplements,” as well as emotional hygiene, which focuses on solutions for stress management, anxiety, disconnection and other mental health challenges.

Bell also touched on one other thing to watch in terms of investment: metaverse markets. The internet is evolving into a metaverse, she said, a shared digital realm that will drive culture and design, as well as new ways of communicating, playing, shopping, learning and working.

To view this session from NRF 2021: Retail's Big Show — Chapter One on demand, register at nrfbigshow.com.

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