Looking back to the start of 2020, digital transformation dominated the agendas of leading UK businesses. The devastating impact of COVID-19, and the resulting lockdown, has undoubtedly acted as a catalyst: speeding up consumers digital adoption and introducing new trends at a rate few could have predicted.
This year’s Digital Consumer Trends survey, carried out in May 2020, explores the rise in online shopping, banking, video streaming and healthcare in response to the lockdown. As UK businesses look to define their new normal, understanding the immediate and long-term impact of COVID-19 on digital behaviours is paramount.
The research revealed that:
- About 40 per cent of respondents did more online shopping during lockdown.
- 14 per cent had more remote (phone or video) appointments with health practitioners;
- A third streamed more films and/or TV series on SVOD platforms during lockdown.
Will these new digital behaviours endure post-lockdown?
Online usage trends initiated or accelerated during the pandemic are likely to mould consumer behaviours for years to come. What is not clear is the extent of the change that will prove to be enduring.
The medium-term impact (say, as of 2023) will likely be driven by the following:
- Potential rise in new infections. This may necessitate further lockdowns, either localised or national prompting some consumers to migrate some applications online for good, rather than to regard them as a mere stop-gap.
- The timing of a mass-market vaccine. The longer this takes, the more entrenched online behaviours are likely to become.
- Public Health guidelines. Some consumers may prefer to shop online than to wear a mask in-store; others may be more inclined to shop in stores if everyone is wearing a mask. The inability to try on clothes in a shop’s changing rooms may diminish the benefit of physical retail for some. Restrictions on the capacity of public transport may dissuade some people from travelling into shopping centres.
- Changes in availability and choice. Consumers may need to travel to reach their preferred brands as their local store may have closed: going online may be favoured over a longer journey. For medical advice, supply may also be constrained: some GPs may continue to triage their patients remotely by default, in preference to having patients visit a congested surgery.
- Convenience of online platforms. This will depend on how easy consumers found using these tools and how quickly their experience can be converted into a loyal customer base.
We asked respondents to identify the activities which they believed they would maintain at the same level once lockdown restrictions were lifted (see Figure 2).
The following activities are examined in more detail below: online banking and shopping, virtual appointments with medical staff and streaming films and/or TV series on video-on-demand (VOD) platforms.
The increased adoption of online banking
During lockdown, 22 per cent of respondents used online banking more than they normally did. This may have come as a result of having to make more online transactions than normal, but also due to the influx of new online banking users. Between 14 March and 14 April, six million people started banking online for the first time.
Over 60 per cent of respondents who used online banking more during lockdown say they are likely to continue doing so at the same frequency once restrictions have been lifted. The lockdown may have provided the perfect opportunity to convert people to online banking and lead to enduring change.
Online shopping - an enduring lockdown behaviour?
Lockdown obliged consumers to change their shopping behaviour: 38 per cent of respondents did more shopping online relative to pre-lockdown levels. Half of these converts to online shopping would maintain these behaviours post-lockdown.
One in five respondents did more online grocery shopping during lockdown than before. As they did, online orders surged, often overwhelming the available supplies, with the share of e-commerce sales for grocery increasing from 7 per cent to 15 per cent at their peak.
During lockdown some customers experienced online food shopping for the first time. The unfamiliar first step was taken and for some there will be no going back. Online grocery retailers such as Ocado believe that things will never revert to how they were before the pandemic and are investing in scaling their e-commerce capacity.
As many non-essential stores tentatively began to reopen on 15 June, online sales remained at a higher level than before the lockdown – with just under half of consumers still not feeling safe visiting stores at the time of writing. Others were quick to return to shopping in-store, preferring to queue, wear a mask and socially distance in a physical environment rather than shop online. While footfall for the week starting 15 June was 40 per cent higher than the previous week, it slowed for the remaining month. Shopper numbers for June were 56.6 per cent lower compared to the same time last year.
Consumer confidence in shopping in-store needs to be rebuilt and will take time to do so. However, for many, particularly those continuing to work at home most of the time, online shopping will remain preferable for some time to come. For some consumers it is more convenient, for others it is safer. But the challenge for multichannel retailers is that online sales have lower margins. And this is where attention needs to be focused.”
Head of Insight & Marketing, Consumer
The rise in virtual healthcare appointments
Since lockdown started, adoption of virtual care, conducted via voice or video calls, has risen sharply. The key driver for the shift was the need for clinicians and patients to comply with social distancing rules and reduce the number of face-to-face appointments or consultations.
14 per cent of respondents had more virtual appointments with health practitioners during lockdown than before. As a proportion of overall appointments, around 80 per cent of outpatient examinations and most primary care appointments were conducted remotely. One hospital set a target of 80 per cent virtual outpatient consultations but delivered 87 per cent of consultations remotely during the first six weeks of lockdown. Satisfaction scores were high for patients and clinicians.
Consequently, online primary care providers reported that the number of virtual consultations conducted during lockdown increased exponentially. For example, eConsult, an online consultation platform providing patients with access to their own GPs, conducted an average 10,000 remote consultations a month pre-lockdown. By the end of April volumes had risen to over 30,000 a day, about 90 times higher.
While COVID-19 has clearly led to a rapid acceleration in the adoption of virtual consultations over the past three months, there is considerable scope for even greater uptake in the future. We expect people to continue wanting more convenient and timely access to clinicians, access to their own health records and active participants in their own care plans. Telehealth, which comprises remote monitoring and virtual consultations, is likely to become a central feature in the future of health.”
Research Director of the Centre for Health Solutions
Streaming films and/or TV series on VOD platforms
Around a third (34 per cent) of respondents streamed more films and/or TV series on VOD platforms during lockdown. Just under half (45 per cent) of this group say they would like to continue to stream films and/or TV series at a similar level once lockdown has lifted.
Partial lifting of lockdown restrictions, summer holidays and a return to the workplace for some staff may lower usage, but we expect consumption to remain at relatively high levels post-lockdown. Indeed, figures from the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board (BARB) show that in mid-July, levels of ‘unidentified’ viewing (i.e. all types of TV set viewing that BARB cannot identify, including VOD viewing or video games), were significantly higher than pre-lockdown. For the week ending 12 July, unidentified viewing averaged 75 minutes per day, 61 per cent higher than the same week in 2019, although it is lower than the early days of lockdown when viewing reached almost 100 minutes per day.
While much of this growth would have gradually happened anyway, the trend has been fuelled in part by a growth in the number of VOD subscriptions available. Two-thirds of UK consumers now have access to VOD platforms, ten per cent more than last year (see Figure 3). In recent months, Disney+ also launched, meaning that there are more content options than ever for consumers. Both Netflix and Disney+ reported large increases in the number of users at a global level, which will translate into healthy budgets for content creation.
Digital transformation business implications
Although it might be difficult to accurately predict future behaviours, the opportunities and challenges organisations face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are becoming clear. A key indicator of how well they might perform post-pandemic is the degree to which they embrace digital tools as a way to run their business, as well as to interact with customers. A company’s digital assets and performance will increasingly drive consumer loyalty.
For consumers, fast and reliable connectivity and ownership of devices through which they can access digital content, have become more important than ever. Those without the right technology tools or skills will struggle to engage in crucial day-to-day activities, such as online grocery shopping. Digital inclusion has improved in recent years. In 2018 there were still 5.3 million ‘internet non-users’ (those who have either never used the internet or have not used it in the last three months), but this number is almost half that of 2011. Ensuring that every consumer in the UK is equipped with the right technology should become a priority for policymakers, regulators and telecommunication companies.
Finally, an increase in use heightens the importance of digital literacy and safety. Consumers need to be able to spot fake news and reviews, avoid online fraud and much more. According to an Ofcom study conducted between 12-15 June, 30 per cent of respondents had come across false or misleading information about COVID-19 in the last week. Technology companies will also be required to increase their efforts around content moderation. Meanwhile, all companies with an online footprint should consider how best to educate their customers on good online practices to ensure their platforms and the internet remains a safe and secure tool for all consumers.
During lockdown, most people had to stay at home other than for essential travel and key workers. The constraints on movement boosted online platforms in significant ways. Some people were already online; others had to boost their online activity; for others still lockdown required them to use online services for the very first time. For many UK consumers, their lockdown usage may have provided the perfect opportunity to speed up adoption of online applications and lead to enduring change.
More data, more trends
This is the first in a series of articles from our survey that we will release during 2020. Sign up to be notified of the next theme: The future of 5G: a digital consumer perspective.
Future topics will include, the future of mobile stores, changing attitudes to data privacy and living room entertainment.
5G: evolution deferred – what’s next for operators?
Changing attitudes to data privacy
The future of mobile stores: online or on the high street?
Living room entertainment
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Lead TMT Researcher
Marketing Lead for Technology, Media & Telecommunications
Research Director of the Centre for Health Solutions
Head of Mobile & Apple Alliance Lead at Deloitte Digital