How the COVID-19 vaccine is impacting consumer behavior in the US and UK—and what brands must do to drive customer loyalty during this interim period

Paul Tiedt | Mar 10, 2021 Paul Tiedt 03/10/21

It’s been almost a year since we published our first blog on the pandemic—a time when essential retailers were scrambling just to keep merchandise on shelves and restaurants were figuring out how to provide customers with a contactless experience.

It was a period of chaos for grocery stores working to meet the heightened demand of curbside and delivery orders and for c-stores accommodating an increase in summer vacationers opting for road trips instead of flights.

In fact, nearly every brand across every industry was forced to rethink and rework operations to prioritize the health and safety of their employees + customers.

Today, brands find themselves in a new state of flux as the COVID vaccination makes its way into the arms of individuals across the globe. With the vaccine comes a sense of cautious optimism, a hope that we’re on the brink of returning to “normalcy” and people will begin to feel safe doing activities they’ve been avoiding this past year.

Unfortunately, uncertainty and inconsistency loom. It’s no secret the vaccination rollout has had its share of hiccups—leaving even those who have been vaccinated unsure of what is safe to do and what isn’t. Supermarket News reports less than half (48%) of people already immunized against COVID feel comfortable shopping in-store and taking part in other indoor activities.

As we enter this new interim phase of the pandemic, brands must once again adjust their experience management (XM) strategy to meet evolving customer expectations. To get a better understanding of how the vaccine is impacting consumer behavior in the US + UK, we conducted a study using BrandGeek—SMG’s customized market intelligence tool. Here are 4 key takeaways from our research:


1. Willingness to take the vaccine varies across markets

Before we can dig into how the vaccine will affect consumer behavior, we need a better understanding of what portion of the population intends to get vaccinated. Our research shows a fairly significant difference between the US and the UK on this—with more than 75% of UK panelists willing to receive the vaccine compared to only half of those in the US.

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Though the US has more respondents on the fence (with 20% unsure about getting the vaccine vs. 16% in the UK), the US also has more saying they are unlikely to get vaccinated (13% vs. 5% in the UK) or refuse to get vaccinated (14% vs. 3% in the UK).

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2. The vaccine will have little immediate impact on current behaviors

Now let’s take a look at those who have been vaccinated or are planning to be vaccinated. Will their behaviors suddenly shift to that magical pre-pandemic time? Of opting to eat at a restaurant instead of ordering carry-out? Or heading to the store to shop for nonessential items instead of buying them online? Or ditching their at-home workout for a run at the gym?

Our research says: only if that’s what they’ve been doing during the pandemic.

The data tells us the vaccine will have minimal immediate impact on consumer behavior. Many people in the US are already doing what they feel comfortable doing. More than half of consumers are shopping for nonessential items and dining indoors—though 59% report they are not yet comfortable going to the gym.

But again, we see a cultural difference here. While US respondents have decided what they feel comfortable with on their own (and are less inclined to rely on government direction regarding what’s safe and what isn’t), most consumers in the UK have been in a government-mandated lockdown and will wait on the all-clear from officials before changing their shopping behaviors or returning to nonessential retail + hospitality. It’s worth noting that last summer—following the UK’s previous lockdown—there was a fairly quick bounce back once those restrictions were lifted.

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3. Additional health + safety protocols must remain

In addition to consumer behavior not being majorly impacted by the vaccine (at least initially), immediate demand for high health + safety standards will also go unchanged.

In both the US and the UK, the expectation of enhanced safety measures will remain, but not surprisingly (given our previous discussion on the differences between markets), UK panelists have slightly higher expectations. The only exception we saw is when it comes to the requirement of staff wearing masks, where US respondents had higher expectations.

As you can see from the chart below, a contactless experience (falling just behind cleanliness expectations) will continue to be highly regarded by customers. Curbside pick-up and contactless delivery are not fads that will disappear post-pandemic. Brands should keep focusing their efforts on these offerings and ensure the process is simple and seamless for customers.

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In addition to the health + safety protocols that have become must-haves throughout the pandemic (i.e., additional cleaning, mask requirements, limited capacity), it’s now important to understand consumer expectancy of organizations requiring employees to be vaccinated. Our research shows 1 in 4 US respondents and more than 1 in 3 UK respondents are expecting brands to have a vaccinated staff.

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4. Digital will continue to dominate

Of course e-commerce was on the rise long before the pandemic hit, but COVID took digital sales to a whole new level. And while, over time, consumers will start shopping in stores and eating in restaurants more, the convenience and preference of online shopping and digital ordering will remain.

Consumers indicate they still plan to interact with brands digitally even after vaccines are widely available. US panelists indicated a higher online interaction with restaurant brands, while UK consumers have more readily adopted digital retail (again, in large part due to the government-mandated lockdown).

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Also notable: US consumers have and plan to order directly from restaurants, while consumers in the UK—where the adoption of restaurant apps is still much in the infancy stage—have relied more on third-party delivery.

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For restaurant brands, understanding consumer expectations of branded apps is vital, as is having an air-tight third-party delivery strategy.


What brands must do now

Though our research shows many consumers plan to continue similar behaviors amid the rollout of vaccinations, it’s important to acknowledge the sense of optimism happening as well.

In “Consumers Ride A Rising Tide Of Consumer Energy Into 2021,” Forrester reported many people felt hopeful at the end of 2020, saying: “Around 58% of US online adults believe that their quality of life next year will be better than it was this year — 23% specifically expect that life will significantly improve.

…The escalating energy around consumer identities, willingness to trust, search for novelty, and feeling of control mean that consumers are becoming confident and eager about new products and messaging; they are becoming ready for new forms of consumption that enhance their happiness and wellbeing.

Consumers will channel this energy into the brands that resonate with them in this moment and help them restore the variety and excitement they’ve felt deprived of during 2020.”

The top 2 ways to be one of those brands resonating with consumers is:

  1. Continue to prioritize health + safety. Consumers have adapted to a new way of behaving amid COVID and have come to expect brands will keep their safety top of mind. Ensure new initiatives are maintained—specifically around cleanliness, contactless, and digital offerings.
  2. Focus on digital transformation efforts. Proactively address complexities with new digital consumer interactions and ensure you can still reach consumers + provide high levels of service with fewer face-to-face interactions.

To continue adapting and meeting consumer needs despite the constantly shifting environment, download our restaurant, retail, grocery, or healthcare playbook. The interactive strategy map + status tracker will provide your organization with fundamental steps to optimize your experience management program and future-proof your business amid COVID-19 and beyond.


Paul Tiedt | Senior VP, Research 
Customer Experience Update