Business as unusual: UserTesting’s COVID-19 Impact Study, July 2020, Part 1

Posted on July 28, 2020
8 min read


The business disruptions caused by the pandemic will probably continue until there’s a vaccine—no matter what the government does about reopening. But in the meantime, there are practical steps companies can take to attract some customers back to stores and other locations outside the home.

There was a wealth of insights produced by the July edition of UserTesting’s COVID-19 tracking study, a combination of interviews and survey conducted in June-July 2020. Due to the large volume of findings, we’ve split the report into three parts:

  • Today, in Part 1, we ask what it will take to get lifestyles back to normal. When will people resume their pre-pandemic buying habits, and what can businesses do to attract them in the meantime?
  • In Part 2, we look at buying habits during and after the pandemic. How well is home delivery working out in the pandemic? How do people feel about it, and will they continue to use it after the economy reopens?
  • Then in Part 3, we explore the future of work and education at home. Has the pandemic created a permanent shift in work patterns? Can companies ditch their office buildings and go all-remote? How is remote learning working out, and what does that mean for the upcoming school year?

When will buying patterns go back to normal? Don’t hold your breath

One of the most urgent questions companies are asking during the pandemic is when they can expect consumer buying patterns to go back to normal. Unfortunately, it looks like the wait will be a long one in many cases. Most consumers are moderately to extremely fearful of many common activities outside the home. Even if stores and other businesses reopen, many consumers say they’ll need to see additional changes before they’ll go back to them. Four requirements are at the top of the list:

  • A vaccine is available
  • Health experts say it’s safe
  • The rate of infections drops
  • Everyone in public wears masks

Only 19% of consumers say they’re ready to go back to their previous lifestyles now.

Watch typical people explain what needs to happen for them to go back to normal:

Companies can persuade some consumers to return pre-vaccine

But the outlook for companies is not entirely bleak. Although a complete return to life as usual doesn’t look likely in the near term, companies can make some consumers more comfortable doing some public tasks. We asked consumers about their willingness to participate in 15 public activities, ranging from staying in a hotel room to exercising in a gym. The consumers rated each one for perceived risk, and also explained their thinking—giving companies a guide on what they need to fix in order to bring some customers back. 

Generally, the challenge is creating trust that your location or activity is sanitary and safe. People generally consider the following factors when assessing the risk of an activity:

  • How likely is it that the location will be contaminated with the virus?
  • How easy is it to sanitize the location?
  • Do they believe the people managing that location will know how to sanitize it properly?
  • Do they trust that the people managing the location will sanitize it?
  • Can consumers themselves do things to avoid infection? Are they in control?

So, for example, riding public transit is seen as very high risk because buses and train cars are hard to clean, many sick people might be riding them, and there’s very low trust that public transit authorities know how to sanitize them and will actually bother to do so. On the other hand, going to a doctor’s office is seen as relatively low risk, even though sick people might be there because people assume that doctors know how to sanitize things and can be trusted to clean properly.

Therefore, the challenge for companies that want to attract the public is to convince them that you know how to sanitize and that you’re doing it obsessively. The better you do that, the more customers may return.

Based on all of those factors, here’s how consumers rated the activities, from least feared to most:

Least feared activities (strongly feared by less than a third of the population)

Shop for food in a grocery store

Consumers tend to trust that the store is cleaning things like cart handles, they feel they can protect themselves with masks and gloves, and many are less nervous because they have already gone to a store and didn’t get sick.

Hear how consumers feel about grocery shopping:

Test drive a car

Consumers assume that few people have been in the car, and the driver can wipe down the steering wheel and other surfaces. Anxiety increases if the salesperson wants to go along on the drive.

Thoughts on test driving a car:

Visit a doctor’s office

We expected people to be very fearful of medical offices, so we were surprised by this result. Although people view medical offices as a likely place for sick people to spread germs, many also trust that doctors know how to sanitize things and believe strongly that their staff can be trusted to do it.

Feelings about visiting a doctor:

Shop for clothing in a store

Clothing stores are not seen as overly crowded, and most people feel clothing is not likely to be contaminated. However, some people said they would only buy clothing that did not have to be tried on. Changing rooms were seen as dangerous and hard to sanitize, and there was low trust that anyone would actually sanitize them.

Shopping for clothing in a pandemic:

Moderately feared activities (strongly feared by 33%-50% of the population)

Go to a barber shop or hair salon

People were leery of being in close contact with a stylist for a long period of time, but said masks can help. They also said they’d be more comfortable if customers were allowed into the salon one at a time.

Perceived risks of getting your hair done:

Work in an office

Fear level depended on the number of people in the office and how crowded together they are. Even if those conditions are met, many people feared that shared spaces like lunchrooms and bathrooms could not be kept sanitized.

Thoughts on working in an office:

Stay in a hotel room

Larger hotel chains were viewed as more likely to sanitize properly. Some consumers also said they were confident that they could disinfect anything they were likely to touch in the room.

Fear of the virus in hotels:

Eat in a sit-down restaurant

This is still a very anxious activity for about 40% of US consumers, and moderately anxious for another 40%. It helps if they have seen the hygiene practices used by the restaurant in question. But even then, they may not trust that employees behind the scenes are healthy and disciplined about sanitation.

People talk about eating out in a pandemic:

Stay in a home-sharing location (like Airbnb)

Overall, this was seen as a bit riskier than staying in a hotel. Some people felt they could trust an individual host to clean better than a hotel staffer, but more people felt that it would be a risk to trust random hosts.

Staying in a vacation rental:

Work in a workspace that’s shared between companies (like WeWork)

This is seen as significantly riskier than a regular workplace because there is less control over the people coming and going.

Working in a shared space:

Deeply feared activities (strongly feared by more than 50% of the population)

Go to a movie

Movie theaters are seen as dirty places in the best of times, and there’s very low trust that staffers would sanitize them properly.

People describe their fear of movie theaters:

Ride in a rideshare car (Uber, Lyft, etc)

Consumers said you don’t know who else has been riding in the car, and there’s low trust that drivers will sanitize it after each passenger.

Anxieties about using a rideshare service:

Exercise in a gym

Gyms are viewed as an enclosed place in which people may shed a lot of germs, and there’s low trust that equipment will be wiped down properly.

Concerns about gyms and the pandemic:

Fly on a plane

The idea of flying on a plane pushes many buttons for consumers. A plane is seen as hard to clean, there’s low trust that it will be cleaned properly, you have no control over the people around you, and have no ability to get away from someone who appears to be sick. As one participant put it, “I would not like being stuck in that tube in the sky.” Some people also said they are especially fearful of encountering germs in airline terminals.

Fear of flying:

Ride public transit

This was seen as the worst of all possible worlds. Many people use it, there’s no control over who rides, it’s difficult to sanitize, and there’s very low trust that cleaning crews would sanitize it properly anyway.

Thoughts on riding public transit in a pandemic:

What it means for companies

It’s your job to persuade consumers that your location or product is safe. If it’s possible for doctors to convince people that their offices are safe, you can do it too. Publicize your cleaning processes (and enforce them rigorously). Show how you’re training employees, what you’re doing to monitor their health, and how you ensure that sick employees stay home. 

Consumers are also more likely to trust a location if they have been there and seen good hygiene practices. For example, some participants said they had been very fearful of going to a restaurant, but then they visited one and saw how careful the staff was, they were more willing to go again. So one big challenge is to get people to go once. Are there ways to entice consumers to visit, and to share their positive reports with others?

If you do everything right, it’s possible to lure some customers back. But you should also keep in mind that some people are more fearful than others, and will not be comfortable resuming any public activity until the pandemic is completely over, no matter how often you clean. Reopening can help, but alternate ways of engaging with customers, such as delivery and curbside pickup where possible, will remain an important part of the mix until the pandemic is completely over.


UserTesting’s COVID-19 Impact Study uses a mixed methodology to give deep insights on public issues and attitudes. It includes a quantitative survey of 1,100 US adults, fielded at the beginning of July; paired with self-guided video interviews of about 60 people, conducted in June through the UserTesting platform. The quant survey results were used to select video clips that represented typical survey responses. So the quant survey tells you what typical people said, and the interviews tell you why they said it and how they felt about it.

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