COVID-19 One Year On: How Has the Pandemic Pushed Businesses and Consumers Towards Digital?

Sam Rose - Head of Content

Sam Rose

3rd March 2021

We’re almost a year on from Boris Johnson announcing the UK’s first lockdown on 23rd March 2020 at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Following government advice, we had packed up our things at the SilverDisc office on Tuesday 17th March and headed home. As I stared into my desk drawers and wondered if I should take all my chocolate and snacks with me (we might be back in the office in a couple of weeks, right?), I would have been astonished if you’d told me we would still be working from home a year later.

While some days it may feel on the surface like not much has changed in that time, an awful lot has happened. We’ve seen three lockdowns; four tiers; quite a few tears; several catchy slogans and quirky quotes from the powers that be (“’tis the season to be jolly careful”, anyone?); and restrictions tightened and loosened more times than the lid of a Nutella jar in the office kitchen on pancake day. But right now, we are seeing cases decrease thanks to the current lockdown, and most importantly, over 21 million people in the UK have received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine to date. Things have changed a lot and they continue to change.

But what has been the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the digital world? Let’s take a few minutes to explore how coronavirus has affected the use of apps in the hospitality sector, the way office workplaces operate, and of course, digital marketing activity for consumers and businesses both thriving and struggling.

What’s App-ening in Hospitality?

In 2020, the NHS COVID-19 contact tracing app wasn’t the only popular new addition to our phones. But before we talk about last year specifically, here are some nuggets of information to set the scene: McDonald's began rolling out self-ordering kiosks to all of its restaurants in 2015 (though I'd argue Argos has been miles ahead of this trend for years), and their innovative new app followed in 2017 - allowing customers to order and pay from their phones before arriving to collect their food. In the same year, Wetherspoons launched its own order and pay app, which Independent reported as being “the future – not just of pubs but of the world.” Well, they weren’t wrong. All of this is to say that any restaurants or pubs that had apps before 2020 were more prepared for what was to come. While McDonalds were ahead of the curve, other chains had to react quickly last summer. Technology that may have been looming vaguely in the future was suddenly central to the smooth running of the business. The proverb “necessity is the mother of invention” has never rung more true. Incidentally, Greene King launched its Order & Pay app in all 267 of its Hungry Horse pubs in December 2019. Little did they know just how useful this would prove to be in 2020.

After the first lockdown ended and the country began to reopen, restaurants such as Pizza Express and Nando's made it possible to view their menu online and pay via the website while sat at your table. Harvester and Slug & Lettuce also launched their own apps, while Heineken launched the Swifty app in May 2020 with similar functionality, to help pubs re-open safely. Now, many restaurants and pubs use apps or websites and QR codes to enable customers to book tables, view their menus, order food and pay. Some restaurants already had apps with some of this functionality, such as simply being able to pay from your phone. But the pandemic has meant that the more parts of the transaction customers can do on their phones, the more social distancing and safe operation is possible for these restaurants.

However, while it’s great to see restaurants offering more convenience through digital means, not everyone has the inclination or even the smartphone required to get on board with this. Take my parents, for example, who don’t want to squint at a tiny menu on their phones and aren’t very comfortable with downloading and navigating an app or unfamiliar website. They would much rather be given a one-use paper menu and speak to a masked-up, socially-distanced human. It’s still important to not alienate a large portion of a customer base by leaving them behind – all customers, regardless of technical ability or interest, should be catered for.

Outside of the restaurants and in our homes, there has been a huge increase in food deliveries – takeaway delivery orders increased by almost 400% in the fourth quarter of 2020. US restaurant owners have reported that using delivery companies such as Uber Eats has been the only way to keep their businesses going. Plus, takeaways have gone from simply being a weekend treat to being spread across the whole week – and trends have changed in other interesting ways, as this article explains. Whether we’re looking at apps and websites used for food collection or delivery, or for ordering and paying once in the restaurant, there is no doubt that COVID-19 has pushed businesses and consumers to rely on technology more than ever before.

Zoom into Office Life

Had you heard of Zoom before March 2020? Plenty of people hadn’t, even though the company was founded in 2011 and launched its software in 2013. Despite seeming to come out of nowhere, Zoom soon became synonymous with the term “video conference” and has been many people’s go-to platform for work meetings and family events while restrictions have been in place. In fact, it has proven so popular that the company recently announced that its revenues have soared by 326% year-on-year, with little sign of slowing down.

But why did Zoom become more popular than big names such as Skype? Answers to this question allude to problems with Skype being glitchy or welcoming too much spam, while Zoom offers a simple interface and ease of use (though Zoom hasn’t been without its own security and privacy issues).

Whichever video conferencing platform you use, working from home has been made possible – and perhaps easier than it otherwise would have been – thanks to these ways in which we’re able to communicate. Many businesses have been able to run remotely, with staff members working from home so easily that they are in no rush to go back to the way things were. So could working from home be a more permanent change?

At SilverDisc, we have been set up to work from home seamlessly from before the start of the pandemic, and with safety as a priority, the office can wait until we’re completely comfortable returning to it. We’ve also found working from home to provide additional flexibility, easily accommodating any needs to attend to such as personal appointments, children or other changes in work schedules. And technology such as Zoom, Skype and our cloud phone system means it’s easy to let people know our availability or to have a catchup when we’re back at our desks.

The increased use of video conferencing has also meant that conferences and other in-person events have become more accessible. As a part-time PhD student, I hope that this is a change that sticks around because it has made it much easier for me to attend conferences and present my own research without the hassle or cost of travelling – not to mention the number of times I would have otherwise had to miss an event completely due to scheduling conflicts. The same can be said for event attendance across many industries.

Online Presence Increases

According to a report from Elavon in 2019, 47% of SMEs didn’t have an ecommerce presence. However, did you know that more than 85,000 businesses launched online stores or joined online marketplaces during the first lockdown? Businesses making up this huge number include those in the fashion, manufacturing, food & drink and agriculture, fisheries & industrial food production sectors. Though we don’t know how many of these online businesses were brand new and how many were completely offline business changing to online operation, this is another example of how the pandemic has driven businesses towards technology at an accelerated rate.

Shifts in Digital Marketing Trends

In July 2020, IPA reported that UK marketing budgets saw their highest cuts in 20 years, with 64% of companies surveyed showing a decrease in spending and only 13% showing an increase. Last March, Facebook saw a decrease in paid ads, due to brands facing uncertainty as the pandemic began to unfold.

However, while the global ad spend for 2020 has been predicted to have fallen by 10.2%, we may now be seeing an upturn in spend. According to Econsultancy, UK ad spend could grow at the second highest rate of all markets in 2021, suggesting a healthy recovery is in sight. And there's more:

  • The global social media spend was up 50.3% year-on-year in mid-December 2020.
  • Facebook ad revenue rose 22% year-on-year in Q3 2020 and Twitter ad revenue was up 15%.
  • Pinterest saw the highest year-on-year growth compared to other social networks in Q4 2020.

While there may have been a decrease in paid advertising spend for some businesses last year, SEO remained important, as WordStream explains. On the SilverDisc blog back in April, Alan explained how to do SEO well during coronavirus. We also suggested that if businesses were looking  to cut costs, a shift of focus from paid ads to organic search and social could be a way forward. Read more about this in our blog post “How to Maintain Marketing Momentum During the Coronavirus Outbreak”.

What about consumer behaviour? Well, UK consumers have so far spent an extra day online per month in 2021. And more interestingly, since the beginning of the pandemic, 46% of UK consumers have purchased a product online that they had previously only ever purchased in-store. Plus, 32% of consumers said they expected to continue their new ecommerce habits in the future. That’s according to this statistics roundup from Econsultancy, which offers more interesting insights:

  • UK online sales increased by 36.6% year-on-year in 2020, with a 73% increase for mobile commerce.
  • In May, online sales as a share of total retail reached 33.8% and this only dipped slightly to 27.6% in September, after non-essential shops reopened.
  • UK grocery shopping reached a record 14% in January 2021.
  • Big names including John Lewis, Next, M&S, ASOS, BooHoo, eBay and of course Amazon all reported increases in online sales in 2020.

Though there was a decrease in advertising spend in 2020, an increase is likely in 2021. If you’re still exercising caution, there are a lot of other options available to you, such as SEO, organic social media and email marketing. Remember, content is still king and creating fresh, relevant and inspiring content is the best way to reach your target audience, regardless of the channels you may be using to bring that content to them.

Are Businesses Surviving or Thriving?

Of course, we can’t wax lyrical about how great technology is at helping businesses grow and connect with more customers, without also acknowledging that many businesses are still struggling and some problems aren’t as easily solved by technology. This may be because lockdown restrictions have hit some businesses particularly hard, such as those in the hospitality and travel sectors. There isn’t much that digital can do to help hotels get customers back until the lockdown rules change. (However, businesses can still get ready for a reopening by creating a post-lockdown digital marketing plan.) Some businesses may also be struggling because they were already facing huge challenges and the pandemic was the final straw – as we saw with Arcadia Group. Even if retailers are reaping the benefits of online sales, the high street is still facing huge difficulties. The pandemic has affected businesses in many different ways, and will continue to do so until restrictions are eased and life becomes more recognisable. While some businesses have been thriving and seeing more online sales than ever, for others it hasn’t been so easy and we talk about ways to deal with both of those scenarios in our previous blog post “Coronavirus: Dealing With Increases and Decreases In eCommerce Demand”.

Whether your business is thriving or merely surviving, we are here to help. If you would like any assistance with your digital marketing or web development, get in touch with SilverDisc.

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