Pedestrians wearing protective masks walk past a Lululemon store in San Francisco, Calif. On Monday, March 29, 2021.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Instead of jumping to a conclusion about the post-Covid consumer, come back to the one that psychology studies taught us about long before the pandemic. People do not change their habits easily, and what they stand to lose by changing their behavior weighs more heavily on the mind than any potential gain.

“It’s hard to break habits. It’s an uphill battle, ”said Deborah Small, professor of marketing and psychology at Wharton, at the recent CNBC Small Business Playbook Summit.

The idea behind this is known in academia as risk perception, and the pandemic has complicated it. An unprecedented event that suddenly forced consumers to go against their natures and adopt new behaviors, and out of many business interactions previously taken for granted: bars, cafes and restaurants, in-person fitness classes and in-person education . Consumers have explored alternatives in a way they rarely do, and this has happened in addition to an ever-changing consumer landscape, in recent years primarily related to digital buying and selling.

“Many of the ways people used before the pandemic will not return to these levels,” Small said. “We have been permanently changed by the different experiences we have had over the past year and more. “

But Professor de Wharton also says it’s unwise, based on everything we know about the consumer’s brain, to assume that the habits formed during the pandemic will become a permanent and preferred majority state. A recent Forrester survey found that 75% of American adults said the pandemic would lead to long-term behavior changes, but his research also points out that the consumer has always been changing; it’s just maybe now more likely that change is the “new normal” for consumers.

In Small’s view, there is no single consumer to sell to – and to think in those terms would be a fundamental mistake.

Take exercise, for example, and the ramping up of the home practice squad before its momentum was interrupted by what Wall Street calls reopening of trade. Meanwhile, Lululemon continues to sell a lot of yoga pants, but has seen a steady increase in store traffic after seeing the popularity of direct-to-consumer sportswear sales during the Covid peak in the United States. He also bought the home fitness start-up and Peloton Mirror competitor.

Betting on more than one type of consumer – which was already happening before the pandemic with the digital boom – is a smarter strategy than planning around a consumer obsession emerging from the past year.

“Imagine someone who used to go to the gym and couldn’t, started exercising at home. Maybe he’s really missing the old method and is dying to come back, and couldn’t do it at home, ”Small said. The pandemic may ultimately reconfirm that person’s initial preference. On the flip side, she says, some consumers are trying new shapes and concluding that “it’s convenient for me” and are forever changed.

This reflection already has a name in retail, and a strong presence: omnichannel. Or in other words, spread your bets rather than concentrating them. Meet the consumer where they want to be met and understand that not every consumer is driven by the same set of preferences. Small said this is the kind of thinking small business owners across the country – whether they were able to survive the pandemic or opportunistic enough to form a new business during it – must act on early on. of the post-pandemic period.

She provided CNBC with some key ideas for tackling this delicate consumer landscape.

1. Learn the difference between risk and risk perception.

A lot of people want to put the consumer in the pre-pandemic and post-pandemic compartments, and Small said that was actually a reasonable starting point for making predictions. Humans tend to categorize it as a way to make sense of the world, it just becomes dangerous to categorize all consumers as similar.

“There is enormous heterogeneity, variations among consumers, in their views, their risk preferences, their political ideologies … whatever shapes how the changes affect them,” she told CNBC.

That’s why she says the first thing to keep in mind is the difference between risk and risk perception.

“The perception of risk is not a risk,” Small said. “Risk is reality, its truth. The perception of risk is psychology, what we feel and think. “

The perception of risk is a function of the personality and culture in which we live, as well as the information we consume. And all of this can vary at the individual and community level.

2. Accepting the Covid-19 policy will continue to be an important buying and selling factor.

The pandemic policy is an example of how this perception of risk should be factored into consumer marketing in the future.

The information people consume in communities may be a function of local political ideology, and Small says it’s made worse by the fact that social networks overlap, with individuals talking to others within a community. group.

In communities and regions where concerns about Covid are greater, consumers may remain more risk averse even after the CDC’s guidelines on mask wearing are relaxed. And there is going to be the opposite extreme – “feelings of invulnerability and nuances in between”.

“Businesses need to measure and understand where their customers are coming from,” Professor de Wharton said.

There may be areas where customers, including those fully vaccinated, continue to enter only stores where others are masked. This may be due to personal preferences, the formation of new habits, or politics, including a desire to be an ally of essential workers who might still be at risk of contracting the virus. And there may be examples that go far in the opposite direction and reinforce how political polarization is part of the future Main Street businesses must navigate. Think about the hat store in Nashville, Tennessee, which made national headlines for the yellow star lapels promoting unvaccinated status.

3. Don’t draw a pandemic line, but perhaps segment yourself by preferences.

Vaccination efforts in the United States have made great strides and the number of cases and mortality from the virus have fallen sharply, but a significant portion of the public will need more time to become comfortable with Covid.

Small says that means it’s smart to maintain a stance that leans towards hygiene, but also to recognize that among your customer base there may be those who think the company has gone too far in responding to the risk of virus, and there is a risk of backlash against companies that place too much emphasis on sanitation.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” said Small, the one that is perhaps the hardest to navigate for businesses in “the purple states.”

She strongly recommends considering whether there are ways to segment consumers to meet the needs of those who continue to focus on Covid hygiene and those who may feel differently. The idea of ​​segmentation refers to the heterogeneity that underlies the human perception of risk. As an example, it could be adopted by defining opening hours for different customer segments. Some companies have maintained shopping hours reserved only for older customers during the Covid peak.

Small also said business owners shouldn’t lose sight of one forced change that has worked very well: doing business outside. Some of the best innovations she’s seen among the small businesses where she lives are about finding new ways to do things outside. “It’s better for safety and less risk… so when possible, it’s great. Why haven’t we thought about it before? “

4. Ask your customers what they want.

The best way to learn what customers want? Ask them.

For large companies, that can mean market research, a science that includes in-depth tools for measuring concerns and preferences. And can get expensive.

Small said there is no need for a small business to give up its efforts because it cannot afford proper market research. There are plenty of great alternatives, from do-it-yourself Google Trends analysis to creating surveys using free online tools or Instagram for a quick poll.

“Asking customers questions is the key,” she said.

And that’s important, because another side of human nature that often trips us up is overconfidence.

“We think we know the customers well. Often our intuitions are not correct, ”she said. “So it really helps to ask them. … Not just guessing. Ask them these questions. “

And she says people tend to tell the truth.

“Typically… if they’re your clients and you have a relationship… they want you to be successful, so it’s in their best interests to be honest,” Small said.

Right now, they probably also have a lot of valuable information to share.

“We’ve all had a lot of time to think over the last year and they have opinions. … Listen to customers, ”said Professor de Wharton. “Don’t trust intuition. Talk to customers, ask for their feedback, and try to understand what interests them. “

While assumptions are wrong and intuition could be wrong, Small also stressed that business owners shouldn’t be overwhelmed with challenges and should start by reflecting on what they’ve learned from so many changes, to the innovations they have proposed. , and the extent to which they have been adaptive. “Trust yourself. If you have adapted before, you can adapt again, and can you learn from the way you have adapted before and apply it in the future. “