The business of predicting the future is not an easy one at the best of times. Today, in the midst of a near-global shutdown of retail and the complete upheaval of consumer behaviours, looking forward has taken on a whole new aspect. Fashion businesses in every market segment are desperate to find a way forward, and to figure out how to engage consumers both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

To try and get a finger on that pulse, The Interline spoke to Joe McDonnell, Head of Insight at trend forecasting institution WGSN.

The Interline: How has the brand to consumer relationship shifted since the pandemic broke on European and American shores, and how should companies be reacting?

Joe McDonnell: Coronavirus has pushed fundamental questions about the way our society operates into the forefront of discussions – especially around issues of inequality which are likely to be exacerbated as the full economic impact of the measures are felt . This is reinforcing consumer attitudes towards mitigating the damaging impact of climate change, and other global issues. Companies should think about their purpose and benefits which extend to society rather than just individuals.

The Interline: By that logic, brands are going to be subject to even more scrutiny that usual at the moment.  What, in your opinion, should fashion companies be using as their guiding principles for how they treat employees, engage with customers, tackle social causes etc. during the pandemic?

Joe McDonnell: For most brands, a best practice for agile communications toolkit in response to pandemics is not typically available. If it does exist, many employees haven’t seen it. Now more than ever, it’s important global brands ensure governing principles are in place for responsible and consistent messaging for their customers and clients. ‘Black Swan’ moments are called out as such because they are so unexpected – brands should think about their fundamental value offerings and how they can support their customers at a grass roots level and offer real value to those who engage with their brands. 

The Interline: In what form do you see consumer confidence and spending coming back, once the acute phase of this crisis is over? Will their priorities have permanently changed?

Joe McDonnell: Life has been put on hold, an enforced pause means that people have to reconsider their values around consumption and spending. And of this slowing down and reconsideration of values is taking place alongside an acceleration of digital practises. As this concept evolves, so too will consumer purchasing priorities, ‘the end of more’ is a concept we’ve been exploring at WGSN for a while –  a re-evaluation and prioritisation of which products matter, and need to be purchased. Plus, what value system should you as a consumer buy into – is there a sustainable alternative I could purchase, is there one which gives back to my local community, one which doesn’t harm the planet? These sentiments are going to be exacerbated and become much more mainstream as people are faced with these realities on a daily basis.

The Interline: Although a lot of us – governments included – missed the early warning signs, it’s still fair to say that the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak hit incredibly quickly.  So while the scale and suddenness of the crisis are new, I know your thinking is that it’s accelerating changes that were already afoot.  Tell us a bit more about what trends the crisis is acting as an accelerant for.

Joe McDonnell: People are being forced to work from home, but their whole life is being forced to adapt digitally – they’re seeing their friends through apps like Houseparty, and certainly globally are having to do all their grocery shopping online. These behaviours will not disappear once the quarantine is over, it’s very likely that people who have been forced to adopt digital practises will continue these. Consumer appetite for delivery services is going to continue after the crisis is over and retailers which are unable to fulfil are unlikely to succeed, even in a post Covid world – it’s accelerated digital transformation.

For brands there’s space to think about the digitization of your product, not just the delivery (but that is a key element) – can your consumers actually get the product? But also can you offer a digital product? This is something we’re seeing in fashion, the rise in digital clothing, but we’re also seeing artists and designers selling work online and even comedians instagramming people comedy sketches in exchange for donating a small amount of money for a coffee or help with bills. For event organizers the question emerges around converting your events into the digital space, from IRL to URL.  There’s also an uptick in therapy sessions over Skype, and even a rise in the uptake of doctors’ appointments happening online – this crisis is forcing anything which can digitize – to digitize.