As nations react to the COVID-19 pandemic with lockdowns, curfews and social distancing, consumers and businesses alike have had to adapt to an increasingly ‘low touch’ approach. Traditional ‘high touch’ business models need new strategies during this crisis, for continued operation and survival.
Understanding exactly how low touch is impacting both consumer behaviour and market responses is critical for businesses, to build resilience to this and other similar ‘Black Swan’ events.
Recent research from McKinsey shows the impact of COVID-19 across a variety of low-touch mediums. The activities indicating significant shifts in consumer behaviour are:
· Telemedicine/Digital Healthcare
· Restaurant Delivery/Kerbside pick-up
· Remote learning for children and professional video conferencing
With reduced access to non COVID-19 medical services, and fear amongst the public of visiting medical facilities due to danger of potential infection, there is a clear demand for remote medical advice.
Consumers expect to make greater use of digital health services in next 5 years
This Bain & Co Healthcare Survey highlights the intended rise in telemedicine and digital healthcare services across Asian-Pacific markets over the next 5 years (from 2019), with almost 50% of respondents across all categories anticipating greater use of telemedicine services.
Singapore, Indonesia and Australia all reported increased use of telemedicine services across various platforms in March 2020 compared to 2019.
The number of telemedicine users in Asia-Pacific rose sharply in the first months of 2020
These trends are equally reflected Europe and North America. KRY International, one of Europe’s largest tele-health providers, reported registrations up +200% in March, and Teladoc Health, the largest telemedicine service provider in North America, reported over 50% increase throughout March.
Restaurant Delivery/Kerbside pick-up
The impact of COVID-19 on retail and the F&B industry has been stark. Whilst most high-street stores, bars and restaurants closed, consumers still wanted access to their favourite brands and restaurants. The response to this demand has shifted to low-touch initiatives such as delivery services and kerbside pick-ups.
In the US, many bricks-and-mortar retailers have seen +200% increases in orders placed online for kerbside pick-ups during April, compared to a year ago.
This has extended to super-exclusive New York restaurants such as Japanese Izakaya ‘Bohemian’ - where you could only get a table if referred by a previous guest - who are now offering kerbside pick-up and delivery of some of their signature dishes.
Meanwhile, Cornish butchers ‘Warrens’, who provide meat to some of the best restaurants across London, are now offering their speciality cuts designated for their top clients, at wholesale prices to the general public. 
Remote learning and Video conferencing
Video conferencing has seen a meteoric rise with non-essential businesses requiring employees to work from home during lockdown, whilst schools are using these platforms to provide remote home-learning services to children.
Platforms such as Zoom have seen 10 million total users jump to over 200 million in March alone, and Microsoft Teams saw 2.7 billion minutes recorded in one day, compared to 560 million on March 12th and recorded 183,000 groups in 175 countries using Teams specifically for educational purposes.
Low-touch Behaviour and Business as Usual (BAU)
The rise in low-touch activities will likely have long term impact on the ‘convenience culture’ that has emerged from the growth in digital platform use.
With Amazon and Alibaba increasing their next-day delivery service for virtually any item, and convenience stores delivering late-night groceries on delivery platforms such as Deliveroo, consumers have heightened expectations for fast procurement of goods and services. A recent YouGov.uk survey reported 41% of consumers are more impatient than they were 5 years ago.
This low touch approach supporting the ‘convenience culture’ is expected to impact consumer sentiment for post-COVID activities such as shopping, going to the mall and travel.
This McKinsey report shows that consumer desire to shop in malls and non-grocery stores is falling across almost all countries sampled. This implies a lack of intention by consumers to go to locations that aren’t essential for day-to-day living (e.g. a grocery store), but rather to continue their increased use of online platforms for securing goods and services.
This desire may extend to restaurants and other services, and with the increasing uptake of those who would not normally have used an online solution (such as older generations) combined with the ‘convenience culture’, businesses will need to continue to incorporate the low touch approach into their business model to stay resilient.
Digital workplace practices
Many companies have embraced the value of video conferencing and are assessing the extent and necessity of face-to-face (F2F) meetings.
A study by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom highlighted that employees working from home are more productive and less prone to distraction than those that commute to work daily. However, he also warns that full-time isolation reduces innovation with an associated explosion of mental health problems.
“Most creativity is done in face-to-face environments, since it encourages you to become ambitious and motivated. Full time at home can be pretty miserable”
Flexibility will also play a factor for client services. From construction, consultancy and beyond, suppliers will need to use online conferencing and remote tooling for meetings and company analysis.
The low-touch approach highlights how the business landscape is currently changing across the globe. Virtually every industry is affected in some way from the effects of the new norms already in play. Service industries in particular will be hardest hit; travel, tourism, hospitality, airlines, consulting services; are examples where financial survival will be the first and foremost priority, followed by efficiency measures, managing existing workforce and re-vamping of existing value propositions. To move ahead from this point, incremental improvements and generating innovative products to fit the new norm will be key.
On the consumer front, sentiment is shifting towards both being more cautious, whilst demanding greater personalisation and convenience of service, and the world is adapting to accommodate the necessary digital requirements needed for the new BAU.
In the words of Robert Scoble – the self-styled technical evangelist from Microsoft - ‘Change is inevitable, and the disruption it causes often brings both inconvenience and opportunity’.
So what could be the lasting result?
The new low touch BAU approach could see work colleagues meeting occasionally – when situations demand, and to maintain a connected and supportive culture – whilst continuing to work remotely using a variety of tools and platforms.
Service organisations will move increasingly towards online offerings where applicable; deployment of drones and driverless cars, home deliveries and kerbside pickups will become commonplace as consumers continue to increasingly use the personalised convenience of online retail.
Time will tell which of these sentiments and changes remain post COVID-19, for businesses to offer resilience to disruptions, both now and in the future.
However, with so many significant changes to business operations, one thing is certain - the low-touch economy is here to stay.
Paula Newby is CEO of PREDIXA
PREDIXA helps business leaders to make more effective strategic decisions by rapidly analysing their organisation and pinpointing key issues for remediation using its powerful AI-based Dynamix suite of business applications for predictive analysis, helping business leaders to make more informed business decisions.