Texas businesses can make money in COVID world with right strategy

COVID-19 has inspired us to take better care of ourselves, limit our food waste and make more responsible choices when we shop, and that will force retailers to change how they do business, according to a new consumer survey.

Stay-at-home orders have encouraged Americans to change their behaviors in surprising and positive ways, according to research by Accenture, the business consulting firm. Many of the changes will last long after we have a vaccine and likely create new business opportunities.

Working from home and preparing our own meals is allowing 60 percent of us to take better care of ourselves with a better diet, more exercise and greater self-care, the poll of 3,000 people in 15 countries found. Almost two-thirds of us are also doing a better job of reducing our food waste.

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When it comes to shopping, half of consumers are buying healthier food, and 45 percent are making more sustainable choices, Accenture found. We’re also buying a lot less fashion, beauty and consumer electronics items.

“This trend around things like local, around ethical, around sustainability and around e-commerce are all the things that we’ve called out and have been tracking earlier,” said Oliver Wright, head of Accenture’s global Consumer Goods practice. “The new consumer behavior and consumption are expected to outlast the pandemic.”

The lockdowns have also sped the adoption of new online shopping habits, such as grocery delivery or curbside pickup. Older shoppers, who until recently insisted on going to the supermarket, have switched to online shopping for fear of the virus.

Thirty-two percent of shoppers said they are buying everything online, and Accenture researchers expect that number to rise to 37 percent. More than half of consumers said they plan to boost their use of technology.

Retailers, particularly local stores, have suffered severely from the shutdowns. Buy local campaigns have helped, and with a vaccine potentially more than a year away, retailers themselves will have to change their habits too.

Business people will need to watch how their customers are reacting to COVID-19 and customize their response or offer new services to meet their needs. The more narrowly a company can focus its marketing, the more likely it will retain its customers.

“The willingness of customers to work with you, to help you be successful, is higher now than it’s ever been,” Wright said. “Whatever you’re doing in terms of better understanding your customers, increase it.”

More than 80 percent of consumers said they feel more closely connected to their communities, and nearly 90 percent said they expect this feeling to last long after the virus is gone.

“If you can draw out things that have that local attribute that you have in inventory, that is something again that should act as a bigger draw to a large number of customers,” Wright suggested.

Local retailers can expect support from their communities, with 46 percent of consumers pledging to shop closer to home. But companies will need to reach them. Wright recommends stepping up social media marketing and engagement.

A sidewalk sign will help a little, but the days of relying on walk-ins and brick-and-mortar merchandising are long gone. Retailers need to open e-commerce channels with delivery and curbside pickup with in-store sales.

Companies also need to examine their product lineup. Conspicuous luxury goods are not a good look when everyone is talking about their homemade sourdough starter and rocking face masks. Nearly half of consumers said they are becoming more cost-conscious.

“This crisis has caused people to reflect on what is it they really need and what is the environmental impact of what they’re buying,” Wright said. “Things that have that sort of impact on the environment, things that are seen as more frivolous consumption, I think you will see a bit of a squeeze on that.”

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Some retailers will need to rethink their entire image to reflect the health crisis. High-end consumers will still want luxury, but they will be spending on high-quality goods rather than conspicuous consumption that is primarily bling.

Sixty-four percent of consumers are worried about their health, but 88 percent are concerned about the health of a loved one. Many consumers will judge a business on their hygiene practices and the potential to spread infection.

If a customer does not feel safe, they will not come back, Wright explained, so shops need to show what they are doing.

I suspect we’ll be amazed at what we’ll be willing to do in a few months as we grow accustomed to COVID-19’s presence. But if retail and restaurants want to survive, they will need to do what they’ve always done: Put the customer first.

Tomlinson writes commentary about business, economics and policy.

twitter.com/cltomlinson

chris.tomlinson@chron.com

— to www.houstonchronicle.com

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