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How to Court Consumers Grappling with ‘Quarantine Paradox’ and ‘Social Jet Lag’

Though the pandemic may be as deadly as it has ever been, hopes of a successful vaccine rollout have businesses looking to the future.

To help retailers understand the factors likely to shape the post-Covid period, WGSN’s director of insight Andrea Bell outlined Tuesday some of the top-line trends the forecaster is seeing.

Speaking in a panel at the National Retail Federation’s virtual 2021 conference, Bell described time perception and numbness as the two biggest consumer sentiments that WGSN believes will continue to factor into the landscape into 2023. She also identified hope and cautious motivation as two other leading influences in the years ahead.

The pandemic and subsequent regional openings “have warped our sense of time,” Bell said. “There was an influx of kind of time jokes and memes that provided comedic relief, but academics took a more serious approach and named the lack of time perception the ‘quarantine paradox.’ Essentially, unmoored from the usual rhythms of our daily lives, time feels elastic, stretching infinitely ahead and then without warning snapping back.”

When people lack time perception, Bell continued, nostalgia acts as an anchor they can grasp and feel grounded in. “For 2020 and beyond, this translates into creating nostalgic products, goods and services,” she said.

The trend toward nostalgic offerings was already in full force last year. Brands from Levi’s to Puma and Champion dropped collections inspired by Super Mario Bros. as the beloved video game franchise turned 35 years old. Los Angeles-based brand Guess’ Originals collection brought back retro ‘90s graphics. Rowing Blazers payed homage to the “early ’80s and a young Princess Diana” in its first-ever women’s collection. Champion collaborated with M&M for fun, nostalgic quarantine footwear.

Puma’s newcollection includes Mario-themed takes on its Clyde, Future Rider, RS-Fast and RS-Dreamer silhouettes
Puma’s Mario-themed collection included nostalgic designs on its Clyde, Future Rider, RS-Fast and RS-Dreamer silhouettes. Puma

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But another consequence of this lack of time perception has been what Bell called “social jet lag.” A disconnect between internal, biological time and social time as defined by work schedules and social engagements, social jet lag resembles traditional jet lag except the body never adjusts, causing numbness, she said.

“The events of 2020 have led to a spectrum of intense emotional clutter,” Bell continued. “From fear to outrage, joy, grief, it is really driving the new sense of FOFO—the fear of finding out—a fear and apprehension about what’s to come. And research shows that when we’re feeling negatively overwhelmed or burnt out, numbness is our coping tool, it’s our psychological defense mechanisms.”

Bell predicted consumers will use “structured caring” to combat this cycle in the years ahead. Also referred to as the “joy of apathy,” this concept involves learning to step back, examine every piece of information and then determine an appropriate response. “By focusing our caring efforts, we will yield better results, thus driving down levels of emotional fatigue and helping our productivity,” Bell said.

Consumers of the post-Covid world

Possessing sufficient emotional reserves will be key to the first post-Covid consumer group Bell identified, the predictors.

“The predictors have a warped sense of time,” Bell said. “They’re under emotional fatigue and economic uncertainty has truly taken its toll. They truly desire stability, security and can only deal with optimal interference.” Significantly, the pandemic has led the people within this group to adopt a recessionary mindset, even if they have disposable income and are financially stable.

The predictors will be driven by two factors, Bell said: prediction error—simply, an unexpected change in one’s routine—and the attention divide. “The predictors are processing interference more slowly and with less patience,” she continued.

Bell suggested auto refill as a solution for this cohort. “It’s a win-win for the predictors, it’s a time saver, it’s sustainable—connected machines and the internet could actually eliminate $150 billion in waste across major industries, according to GE—and it helps bridge the gap between that dreaded attention divide,” she said.

Subscriptions also mesh well with the predictors. On top of the emotional payoff the consumer may receive from simply receiving a new package, the subscription model also benefits brands and retailers by creating an opportunity for deeper customer insights, Bell said.

To avoid the disruptive potential of low stock availability and the disappointing “item currently unavailable” message, Bell said predictors are turning to pre-orders. They’re “a solution to eliminate that consumer anxiety and provide a sustainable alternative to avoid overproduction and, of course, deadstock,” she said.

The community-focused “new romantics,” the other consumer group Bell discussed, “are looking for a place where they can feel again.” Her advice for companies targeting this cohort: “focus on products, services and initiatives that help people create stronger emotional ties with their day and their surroundings.” Some examples she offered included time-marking meditation devices, as well as psychedelic solutions like CBD products, mood-altering sunglasses and medicinal mushrooms.