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La Salle News

May 13, 2020

Will virtual economic and social behaviors become a new normal?

Ecommerce photo

A professor from La Salle’s School of Business offers insight

Pick a standard consumer behavior you would do regularly before quarantine—from shopping in a grocery store, to attending a sporting event, or going out to eat.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers are unable to do any of these things as they traditionally have. Venturing to the grocery store requires a mask and adherence to distance restrictions at nearly every turn. Others are now going online to schedule contactless deliveries and curbside pickups.

Sports and entertainment are a whole new ballgame, too. With social distancing restrictions making large gatherings impossible, fans are watching athletes compete in televised e-sports tournaments and musicians are streaming live performances over the Internet, in the wake of cancelled concerts. Even news anchors and comedians are adhering to the stay-at-home edicts and are working from their homes.

Will this be enough to alter how consumers, well, consume?

portrait of Swee Lim Chia, Ph.D.
Swee-Lim Chia, Ph.D.

“I’m not ready to say that this is enough to permanently change people’s behavior to this new norm,” said Swee-Lim Chia, Ph.D., co-chair and associate professor of marketing at La Salle University.

Chia, who studies retail, consumer behavior and satisfaction, and marketing strategy, believes consumers crave social engagement with others. That’s why the behaviors to which we are adhering now may not remain once we enter a post-pandemic landscape.

“It depends on how consumers define what the experience is,” Chia said. “Is the experience the food or is the experience being in a social environment? Certainly, we need to eat, but it’s not always just about food. I think as social beings there’s also an element of that social dimension. We want to be out, we want to be with people, those kinds of things. If there’s restrictions in terms of the pandemic and not having a vaccine and those concerns, would people voluntarily choose to forgo that experience? That is a difficult question to answer.”

This head-spinning pivot to a new normal in the way we consume was possible because the technology was already in place. But what does the future hold?  Will we still pick up dinner outside our favorite restaurants, as opposed to exercising the option sit down inside if and when a vaccine or large-scale testing allows for people to leave their homes again without worry?

That, Chia said, is difficult to predict.

Chia also thinks it’s difficult to forecast the long-term sustainability of digitized, stripped-back sports and entertainment content once the games return and venues open their doors. The National Football League (NFL) draft turned all seven rounds of player selections into a televised, remote experience. The draft attracted more than 15.6 million viewers watched Round 1, up 37 percent over 2019, according to the NFL. For Chia, the draft’s success might signal that fans are opting for bells-and-whistles viewing experiences on TV rather than attending games or other in-person experiences. The NFL has seen a league-wide dip in attendance in recent years.

“The (virtual) NFL Draft opened up people to the idea of what is possible, things that they may not have otherwise considered before,” Chia said. “What this has done is force people to become more open to the idea of events that are going to be live-streamed and virtual. People that previously might not have considered it are more open to the idea of it.”

Social and consumer behaviors are subject to greater adaptation, depending upon the duration of the pandemic and its related quarantine. The degree to which consumers change those behaviors, according to Chia, is open to debate.

“As technology becomes better and people become better with it, that’s going to lower the barrier and make it easier for people to use the technology or take advantage of the technology in terms of live-streaming and so on,” Chia said. “I could probably go out on a limb in saying that if anything, it’s more likely to accelerate a trend, as opposed to changing people’s behavior from something that they weren’t doing before to something that they’re going to do now.”

—Patrick Berkery