The Pandemic’s Latest Wave Meets The Digital-First Economy

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It’s difficult to say whether the pandemic is making a comeback because to “make a comeback,” it would technically have had to have gone away — which it never really has. But even localities that were more successful in reducing COVID-19 rates during the summer (which typically has fewer viral infections) are beginning to see the long-feared new wave arrive as autumn weather sets in.

Thus far, France has proved to be Europe’s hardest-hit country, with confirmed infections hitting 45,422 and average daily cases up 50 percent in the past week alone, according to The Wall Street Journal. But the paper said that France is far from alone. Italy has seen infection skyrocket to 20,000 cases a day, while Spain has seen numbers rise fast enough that the nation has once again declared a state of emergency.

“The epidemic is reaccelerating very strongly,” French President Emmanuel Macron said while visiting a hospital near Paris Friday, according to the Journal.

And as has been consistently the case throughout the pandemic, the spike in cases has been an international phenomenon. The United States reported its highest case count ever on Saturday (Oct. 24), with 80,000 new infections diagnosed. And the prognosis, according to the experts, is not great.

White House coronavirus task-force reports obtained by CNN show experts warned there are “early signs of deterioration in the Sun Belt and continued deterioration in the Midwest and across the northern states.”

The figures aren’t encouraging and likely to get less so as the new infections translate into increased hospitalizations and deaths over the next several weeks, according to experts.

So what happens as the wave surges and consumers are once again strongly encouraged (if not required by law) to stay at home to bring the caseload down — particularly as the holiday-shopping season spins up? Anecdotal evidence and PYMNTS survey data can offer some of those answers:

New Wave Could Mean New Shutdowns 

As caseloads have gone up worldwide, officials around the globe have offered similar responses worldwide, albeit with different levels of stringency.

For instance, in Italy, bars and restaurants are closing at 6 p.m. and high school students have been switched to digital classes. Other than that, officials encourage Italians to socially distance by choice lest the economy has to go back into lockdown again. That’s something the country especially can’t afford during the holiday season.

Meanwhile, Spain has a nationwide curfew between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. and limits social gatherings to six people, while Northern Ireland has once again shut down bars and pubs for the next month. Across the European Union, officials encourage people to obey social distancing and limit their excursions and exposure to crowds lest they face another round of shutdowns during the holiday season.

Here in the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-diseases expert, is strongly recommending a “double down” on measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

“The upticks on the map of more than 30 states that are having upticks is not going to spontaneously turn around unless we do something about it,” Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN.

His comments follow official holiday-season guidance by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advising Americans to stick to digital commerce this holiday season. The CDC advises that consumers avoid packing into malls, standing in line at the point of sale (PoS) or otherwise finding themself in spaces that might quickly fill up with crowds.

And as PYMNTS data demonstrates, consumers seem to be coming into the holiday season pretty pre-wired to comply.

The Digitally Ready Consumer

While the numbers of COVID-19 spike, something very big has changed between the outbreak’s beginning and its latest wave — consumers.

Said simply, the people going into holiday 2020 aren’t the same people they were going into spring 2020. Many have spent months adapting every element of their lives to the digital distribution of goods and services.

As of early October, PYMNTs data showed that some 70 million Americans report being either “very likely” or “extremely likely” to select a merchant based on its suitable digital, touchless offerings. And that number grows to more than two-thirds of Americans (69 percent) when adding those who said they were also “somewhat likely” to do so:


And as for what they’re looking for in terms of digital capability, it’s ways to get the goods they want without having to set foot in stores. When asked, 66 percent of consumers reported delivery capability as their leading interest, while 58 percent named curbside pickup and 55 percent called out inventory availability:


When PYMNTS and PayPal surveyed 2,163 U.S. consumers to learn how their shopping and payment preferences are evolving, 40 percent of surveyed shoppers reported doing fewer activities in stores and more activities online — up from the 12 percent that reported the same in early March when the pandemic’s first wave was still picking up speed.

The share of consumers shopping less in stores and more online increased 28 percent between March and September, and the share ordering from restaurants online instead of at physical locations increased 14 percentage points during the same time frame.

What Consumers Want Is A Vaccine 

Moreover, it seems consumers who were deeply concerned about the pandemic before the latest wave have made their peace with their lives being altered for quite a while.

Fifty-nine percent of PYMNTS/PayPal surveyed reported they would need to know that a COVID-19 vaccine was readily available before going back to their pre-pandemic habits. And 38 percent said having a readily available vaccine is the most important prerequisite for returning to their old lives. By contrast, only 6 percent reported that their single most important consideration would be state and local governments relaxing restrictions.

This isn’t to say the real-time conditions on the ground outside of a vaccine’s availability make no difference to consumers. It’s just that what consumers explicitly said they need to see is the exact opposite of what’s going on in the world at present.

Fifty-eight percent of consumers say they would want to know that the number of new COVID-19 cases had decreased before feeling comfortable returning to what they were doing pre-pandemic.

The Digital Merchant 

It’s important to note that merchants have gotten the memo and have digitally pivoted to the degree that they can keep pace with consumers’ rapidly evolving preferences.

Though the new wave seems almost certain to push consumers even more fully to digital interaction, merchants have spent the past half-year or so preparing for that eventuality. Among those that PYMNTs surveyed, 79 percent report the merchants they shop with have added or improved their digital-first capabilities. Curbside pickup was a leading area — with 55 percent reporting it has been added on.

The bottom line: Consumers have recreated their habits around an uncertain world — shifting their routines, and their preferences along with them. And it seems that as COVID-19 figures climb, those new digital habits will become ever more deeply entrenched heading into the holiday season — and more likely to remain a permanent fixture even when the crisis has finally passed.

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