COVID-19 has one unique feature of making the most improbable scenarios a reality. Consumers are suddenly bizarre fiction characters whose actions are entirely prompted by external forces, powerful and obscure. How will this situation affect actual consumer behavior? There are no definite answers and there cannot be any. All that experts can give us are three possible scenarios that are more or less likely.
Consumers have paused at a crossroads, in concert with the global economy, just like some epic hero in a Russian folk tale. If you go right you may lose your horse; if you go left you may lose your life; if you go straight you will find what you seek.
The experience of previous infections has shown that for the most part, consumers have incredible plasticity. They are ready for restrictions, and even for being put on hold – anything to go back to the old behavior as soon as possible. Consumers recover quickly and without any drastic consequences – like a sponge or a lizard’s tail. Incomes, wages, and jobs ‘regrow’ after the market rebounds, sooner or later.
Even now, in the midst of the coronavirus, a significant number of people seem to be unaware of the severity of the threat seeing the “Chinese virus” as a temporary inconvenience. Indeed, by the time COVID-19 occurred, the world had been living for some time with at least two pandemics – HIV and Ebola fever.
COVID-19 might not reformat the basic consumer values and needs either, which means that shopaholism will be as common as ever. People will not stop using planes and railways, or traveling around the world on business and for fun. The global economy will not cease to be global. And businesses will hardly be able to transition to working entirely online.
What might indeed cause a turnaround in consumer behavior is breakthrough technology such as the internet, mobile, social media, or artificial intelligence.
In this regard, the pandemic can, for example, force politicians, scientists and society to lift the ban on human cloning in order to use genetically modified clones who can work in the most extreme conditions as workforce. The death of a clone would be something insignificant. In the meanwhile, the ‘original’ can live as they want without being exposed to infections, occupational burnout and damage to their mental health.
Only this scenario supposes that the consumer behavior will change significantly. However, it currently looks like science fiction.
The tightening of sanitary requirements in public spaces and on transport, requirements to wear face masks and work remotely, all this creates additional difficulties for consumers and producers but does not change the consumer behavior. The global economy is still focused on the globalization of everything and after the pandemic, it will continue to function in the overproduction format. Therefore, the consumer behavior will remain the same: buy more, pay less.
But how about a third scenario where everyone is happy? Society still can return to the sustainable consumption model, for instance, if artificial intelligence works as the Soviet State Planning Committee and is engaged in determining and redistributing production of goods and services all over the world taking into account the calculated needs of people, so that everyone receives as much as they need, but not more. It could be based on mathematical calculations, with regard to the background of each consumer. Considering that all this information is already available…
Time will tell what way the consumer will choose, but I think that the sci-fi scenario may seem the most popular and realistic.
By Igor Pylayev, Co-Chair of the Delovaya Rossiya (Business Russia) Committee for the Development of the Film and Television Industry