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COVID-19: Fear as a Factor

by Roger Lanctot | May 13, 2020

Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect

And whistle a happy tune, so no one will suspect I'm afraid

-- "Anna" - Rodgers & Hammerstein's "The King and I"

No one likes to be afraid and very few people will admit to being afraid, but this is a good time to be afraid. During this time of COVID-19 I am reminded of interviews with law enforcement officers or soldiers after frightening events - tough men and women - who immediately acknowledge their fear.

The difference is that during COVID-19 fear is an everyday companion joining us whenever we venture out to the supermarket or the pharmacy or to simply go for a walk. We ask ourselves: "Should I wear a mask? gloves? goggles??" How much protection is too much? How much protection is too little?

At Strategy Analytics we have been exploring the element of "fear" in consumer choice for the first time. We are doing this because our clients are being forced to explore this concept on a daily basis.

Navigating the Consumer Fear Factor in Consumer Choice:(link to come!)

This is especially true in the transportation sector where transparency and trust have become major considerations in the context of data collection and potential privacy violations. The onset of COVID-19 has only magnified these concerns as the potential for personal data to be used against individiuals has become a reality - i.e. "If I test positive will I be sent home from work?"

In recent consumer surveys in China, the U.S., and the U.K., Strategy Analytics researchers found differing points of view regarding COVID-19. Responses vary across these geographies but one thing is consistent, the presence of COVID-19 has entered into consumer decision making and is impacting buying behavior.

  • The U.S. and U.K. show similar responses with 60% to 70% of respondents perceiving COVID-19 as a serious threat to health and to their current lifestyle. 
  • China shows about 40% of respondents with similar COVID-19 perceptions. With its younger population, COVID-19 may not be viewed as having the same risk potential. Likewise, having begun their experience a few months before the U.S. and U.K., China may have moved to a new phase of the risk management experience. 
  • The U.S. has a significant split between those who believe COVID-19 presents a real danger for the foreseeable future (~60%) and those who believe it is a manageable and often exaggerated problem (~40%). 
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Strategy Analytics conducted surveys in March and April - bracketing the decision in the U.S. to introduce "stay at home" guidelines. The proportion of respondents postponing purchases increased between the two periods. Most notable, though, is the big increase in postponed vacations/trips.

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In China, with its longer experience with COVID-19, the results show greater proportions of respondents postponing purchases and larger proportions outright cancelling purchases or vacation plans. It will be worthwhile to explore the risk calculations taking place in China relative to the U.S. and the U.K.

In transportation, the fear factor is being faced daily by public transportation authorities, ride hailing companies and taxis, and new and used car resellers. Many observers have pronounced the end of the sharing economy entirely whether it be cars or apartments. Such talk may be premature as operators are making adjustments to the post-COVID-19 reality. Package and food delivery to homes has stepped up, but questions remain regarding the profitability of the sector and the efficacy of home delivery.

The most immediate and widespread impact has been felt in the public transportation sector where social distancing is an impossibility. Transit authorities are implementing a wide range of accommodations to overcome customer fears. Some examples are here:

New and used car dealers have had to contend with fear as a factor in their showrooms. Many are distributing personal protective equipment to their employees and providing vehicle sanitizing services along with remote and pickup/drop off services. Dealers are also leveraging digital resources in a budding drive toward touchless sales of new and used cars. Dealers may have to think about testing their employees who are interacting with the general public at their facilities.

Ride hailing operators, with the exception of DiDi Chuxing in China, continue to resist implementing more stringent passenger and driver protection measures - such as in-vehicle partitions. The very future of the very profitable ride hailing sector which has transformed transportation around the world may hinge on overcoming customer fear. For now, the leading operators are ignoring this concern potentially at their peril.

During COVID-19 I have experienced fear and I have heard it and seen it in friends and industry colleagues. I have also seen a lot of folks putting on a brave face, holding their head up high and whistling a happy tune. It's okay to be afraid, but it's even better to have a plan and a good plan starts with good information. We're gathering and interpreting that information every day at Strategy Analytics.

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