Retail & E-Commerce

Unpacking Omicron’s Muted Effect on Consumer Comfort Levels

Consumers’ comfort with various retail, dining and travel activities, stagnant since the initial delta wave, remains unchanged in the omicron era. While that’s somewhat reflective of the early delta days, it could also signal a new attitude toward the pandemic

Morning Consult polling in the initial weeks of the omicron variant has shown little meaningful movement in consumer comfort levels across a variety of leisure activities. This is largely a repeat of what happened with the delta variant, where news exposure did not drive down comfort levels until cases surged stateside. Consumers’ “keep calm and carry on” mentality will likely strengthen with further mutations.

We’ve come a long way since March 2020.

Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have adopted new mindsets when it comes to calculating personal risk and understanding their comfort levels while performing everyday activities under the cloud of constant threat from the novel coronavirus. 

That’s become clear as we’ve examined the omicron variant’s impact on consumer comfort levels in Morning Consult’s Return to Normal project.

Concern is not gone — 70 percent of Americans are very or somewhat concerned about coronavirus, and 71 percent are concerned about variants — but it’s become a part of everyday life. Increases in vaccination rates and now-routine safety measures such as masks and social distancing are helping to balance the ongoing risk and bolster consumer comfort levels. 

As new variants inevitably emerge in 2022, business leaders can assume that consumers will continue to “keep calm and carry on.” 

Tracking the Return to Dining

Comfort with dining out remains near an all-time high in the coronavirus era: Two-thirds of U.S. adults say they feel at least somewhat comfortable with going out to eat right now, down only slightly from the 71 percent high recorded in July just before the delta-driven surge in COVID-19 cases. 

Thanks to restaurants’ safety protocols, increasing vaccination rates and warmer weather, the recent delta surge in the United States had relatively little impact on consumers’ overall comfort with dining out. Comfort levels with indoor dining, however, dipped during that time, dropping 10 percentage points from a high of 70 percent in July down to 60 percent in September.

After peaking at 67 percent in early November, comfort with indoor dining has started to decline again. With cases on the rise and less outdoor dining available due to the colder weather, people will likely continue to be less comfortable with dining out in the coming months.

The share of respondents who said they feel comfortable with the following activities right now:

Weekly surveys are conducted among roughly 2,200 U.S. adults each and have a margin of error of +/-2%.

Tracking the Return to Shopping

Much like dining, consumers’ comfort with in-store shopping has seen slow growth since the delta variant case surge, but it’s now approaching the peak comfort levels we saw in July. The omicron variant has yet to make an impact on consumers’ feelings or plans around shopping.

For holiday shopping specifically, a plurality of consumers plan to primarily shop online — but they are more likely to attribute that choice to convenience rather than safety concerns. Retailers shouldn’t panic when future variants emerge: Maintaining the safety practices consumers have learned to live with will continue to ease customers’ concerns about in-store shopping.

The share of respondents who said they feel comfortable with the following activities right now:

Weekly surveys are conducted among roughly 2,200 U.S. adults each and have a margin of error of +/-2%.

Tracking the Return to Travel

The travel industry was bracing itself for another major blow with omicron, but so far, it doesn’t look like the new variant is making much of a dent in people’s feelings about taking trips. While comfort is below the high water mark experienced in July, it’s still several points higher than it was during delta’s surge in September. And international travel has yet to see a major dip in comfort levels, even as new border closures and testing requirements cause logistical headaches.

In the absence of a specific reason to be more concerned about omicron, travelers appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach — less than 1 in 10 canceled, rescheduled or delayed booking a planned trip due to the new variant. However, news of the new variant is prompting at least some level of caution, as travel insurance sales increased by 53 percent in the week following omicron’s emergence in the news cycle, according to Squaremouth.com.

The share of respondents who said they feel comfortable with the following activities right now:

Weekly surveys are conducted among roughly 2,200 U.S. adults each and have a margin of error of +/-2%.

The Return to Normal trends suggest another, somewhat scarier, reality: We may have reached peak comfort. Consumer fatigue over the constant drumbeat of new Greek letters, each signaling a potentially deadlier and more infectious virus, could be rewiring our brains to the point where we never expect a return to any sort of normal life.