On a state-by-state basis, shelter in place mandates are being lifted as non-essential businesses are starting to reopen. States like Georgia and Texas have opened with limited capacity requirements based on published guidelines for businesses to follow. But while each state’s guidelines are different, there are universal characteristics for reopening that are largely based on guest preferences.

As consumer expectations have changed as a result of the pandemic, Market Force wanted to understand the new dynamics of the marketplace as changes in behaviors are likely to last well past the current crisis. We’ve been conducting a COVID-19 Consumer Sentiment Study throughout the crisis to keep a pulse on what consumers are looking for in this ‘new normal’.

The primary insight from the research is trust. In order to reopen effectively, brands will need to generate strong degrees of trust across four factors.

1. Brand Trust
The first factor of trust is of the brand itself. Brands already valued by the marketplace will have an easier time than those without perceived brand equity as a strong element of their value proposition with consumers.

2. Employee Trust
The second element is trust from employees. As employees across all industries have been laid off during this crisis, they may have concerns coming back to work in fear they could be putting themselves at risk of getting sick. Can you guarantee that if they get sick once they are back in your store, that you pay them while they self-quarantine?

3. Trust in Following Safety Protocols
The proof is in the pudding as the third element of trust is what guests actually see and experience. Are you following the protocols set in place by local governments? Is there evidence of cleaning taking place, are team members wearing masks and gloves, and are you practicing effective social distancing? There is a specific list of items critical to building trust with consumers and for them, seeing is believing. If your guests actually see protocols happening, they will feel comfortable that you are taking all of the right precautions to protect them. On the other hand, if they don’t see them, you are likely to lose them to the competition.

One of the insights from our COVID-19 Consumer Sentiment Study is that 21% of consumers switched to a new restaurant brand during the pandemic. Proof that your customer base has never been at greater risk of leaving for competition than now as you come out of the reopening process. Not only is it important that you follow the state guidelines, but critical to consider consumer perception.

Dave Boennighausen, CEO of Noodles & Company, said it well when he was recently quoted, “We're ready to do that reasonably soon as markets open up. But what we're going to look at is, we're going to take our cues from not just the regulatory agencies, but also the guests.” In some cases, brands will need to adopt behaviors that are not explicitly laid out by state mandate, but rather from insight derived by consumer research.

4. Trust in Fellow Consumers
Your guests are going to be looking at what their neighbors are doing – are all guests following requested social distancing and wearing a mask? This element is somewhat out of your control as some people may violate safely rules scaring others into dining or shopping where they feel they will have a more comfortable experience.

We have seen Costco proclaim customers cannot shop inside their stores without a mask. Likewise, JetBlue has advised that there will be no one on their flights without a facemask – employees or passengers. A brand taking control of this narrative will take consumer safety concerns off the table.

Trust is the Name of the Game
Creating trust in the new normal will not be easy, but will be important to keep current customers happy and safe while also attracting new customers. Todd Graves, co-CEO of Raising Cane’s, was on point when recently quoted as saying, “For people to trust, our industry has to be very serious and has to guide and constantly stay incredibly, intensely focused on doing this because customers are going to go to the places that they trust. And this is going to last long-term.”

Regrettably, we are already seeing that many brands are getting it wrong. Mark Cuban recently conducted a series of evaluations to assess how effectively the state of Texas reopened. Auditing approximately 300 stores, the first sign of concern was the fact that only 36% of the stores that he chose to audit had actually opened over the weekend; a sure sign that brands are a little leary of opening up with these new requirements to fulfill.

The alarming observation? Only 4% of the stores that were visited were 100% compliant and 33% were non-compliant on over 50% of the requirements. The largest gaps in execution were seen with contactless payment methods, the presence of hand sanitizer at entrances/exits, and a lack of marked waiting spots on the floor. Brands that are not executing mandated safety standards are putting themselves at tremendous risk.

Brand Trust Audits
If your consumers do not see that your staff or other customers are adhering to government guidelines, you will be placing market share at risk! Seeing is believing, and missteps in operational execution can be costly. Brand Trust Audits can help as an effective early warning system to ensure each location is following the appropriate procedures to protect your business from safety risks, fines, and costly customer attrition.

Brands have one shot to get this right in each store, in each state. Brand Trust Audits are the first step to keeping your finger on the pulse of your reopening efforts providing your leadership team visibility into operational execution with alerts and warnings in near real-time, so you have an opportunity to react before too much damage is done. Evaluation results are uploaded and stored on the KnowledgeForce® Platform to create organization-wide visibility to critical issues across the system.

Market Force understands the state-by-state requirements along with the changing landscape of consumer sentiment and our team is here to help ensure your success. Please get in touch to learn how we can support this critical initiative.
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As Managing Director, Brad Christian consults multi-location businesses on optimizing the customer experience. With a focus on driving location level performance improvement in both customer loyalty and financial metrics, he helps client organizations prioritize initiatives based on their potential to deliver ROI.