By Andrew Cripps
We’ve all been in places where we don’t feel completely safe, whether it’s an unfamiliar city or an unclean public restroom. How eager were you to return? Now add in the very real health danger of COVID-19, and you’ll understand how perceptions can influence consumer behaviors.
Even as we see some shuttered businesses reopening, the coronavirus pandemic will have lasting effects on society, and on business, long after shelter-in-place orders expire. Until there is an effective vaccine or treatment, consumers will remain cautious about shopping, dining and gathering in public.
A recent market research study showed that, despite the loosening on restrictions, Georgians are still wary of frequenting public spaces, such as gyms and movie theaters. Dine-in restaurants, hair/nail salons and barbershops were considered safer by comparison, but a majority still expressed concerns. Those concerns will not go away any time soon.
Another nationwide survey in April showed it isn’t the businesses or the workers that consumers fear, it’s exposure to other customers. Approximately 58 percent of grocery shoppers prefer that customers wear face masks and 56 percent prefer that the number of customers in the store be limited. Restaurant patrons likewise preferred limits on the number of dine-in customers.
How can small businesses reopen and reassure nervous consumers? Protecting customers and employees from exposure comes at a cost. For small shops, the Governor’s Minimum Basic Operation guidelines can still be difficult to implement, and owners need to assess whether they can operate profitably under them.
To their credit, restaurants generally adapted to the situation, quickly transitioning to takeout, curbside service and delivery. Many now offer online ordering. Use of these services will decline after the pandemic fades into memory but will be vital to their financial survival for some time to come.
Retail shops have had a harder time, without customers browsing their shelves. Those who embraced social media and online marketing before the pandemic are finding it to be an essential lifeline to their customers now and in the future.
For services such as hair salons and dentists, meticulous sanitation and personal protective equipment, like face shields and gloves, can allow them to resume business and keep workers and clients safe. These precautions will be part of the new normal long after COVID-19.
Consumer businesses in general can benefit by making the protection of customers and employees, and the cleanliness of their spaces, part of their brand. If consumers feel safe, they will gladly return. If not, there are no discounts or added services that will overcome their worries.
Note: For the safety of our members and staff, the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce has postponed its Annual Meeting and Awards Banquet until Friday, Aug. 28. In addition, all chamber board and committee meetings, and Business-After-Hours networking events, are being held via online teleconference until conditions allow for safe public gatherings.
Andrew Cripps is the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce CEO.