The Economic Impact of COVID-19: Where are Consumers Spending Time and Money?

To say COVID-19 has turned our world upside down would be an understatement. Consumers everywhere have been forced to completely readjust where they are spending their time, money, and resources.

As the extent of the pandemic continues to evolve, many communities and small businesses are scrambling to measure the economic impact of COVID-19.

Our market research company recently partnered with Advance Local to better understand the consumer audience during these times and help businesses better communicate with customers leveraging unique, local data.

On April 23, both Drive Research and Advance local hosted a webinar with 500+ attendees to share results from an online survey conducted with 1,200 adult consumers across the Northeast. 

If you missed the webinar, this blog post will walk through the overview and results of the consumer behavior online survey.

Some results you may expect, also some surprises - and our market research company will share some examples and ideas on how you can take action with these results.

If you are interested in obtaining this type of information for your local community, our national market research company can help.


Who participated in the COVID-19 consumer behavior survey?

An online survey was conducted with 1,200 adult consumers across the Northeast markets of Advance Local. This included:

      • Massachusetts
        • Boston DMA
        • Springfield/Holyoke DMA
      • Upstate New York
        • Binghamton DMA
        • Syracuse DMA
        • Watertown DMA
      • Pennsylvania
        • Harrisburg DMA
        • Lebanon DMA
        • Carlisle DMA

400 responses were collected from consumers in each of the 3 markets from email databases. The survey results were Census representative.

When was the online survey conducted?

Fieldwork for the consumer behavior Coronavirus survey was April 6 to April 8, earlier this month.

It is important because as you know, news and guidelines around COVID seemingly change daily which could impact or shift this consumer data over time.

A second wave of this study may be conducted to continue to provide local communities and businesses with fresh data.

What was the goal of the COVID-19 consumer behavior survey?

The goal of this study is to help local communities around the Northeast better understand the consumer audience during these times, and help businesses better communicate with them leveraging this data.

It was important for Drive Research and Advance Local to try and provide our communities with answers at a time where there seems to be very little.

Many of the reports and updates we have been seeing were at a national or state level, therefore we wanted to find data that was at a local level in order to truly measure the economic impact of local communities and residents.

What are consumer feelings on COVID-19 quarantine?

One of the first questions Drive Research asked was asking consumers the first word or phrase that comes to mind to describe the COVID-19 or coronavirus quarantine.

Across all markets and audiences, the top word that came to mind unprompted was BORED or BORING as you see in this word cloud.

word cloud-how people feel about covid-19 quarantine

Throughout this presentation, we also included call-outs for age generations with icons. You’ll see the age ranges for each of the 5 segments here on the right. However, in this case, age does not matter as BORED is overwhelmingly how consumers feel right now in the Northeast.

top word associated with covid-19 quarentine by generation

Other negative words included:

      • Scary
      • Stress
      • Lonely
      • Crazy

In fact, from our analysis, about 60% of words and phrases mentioned, derived negative sentiment from respondents, 29% neutral, and only 13% positive.

This negative sentiment is important to keep mindful as businesses communicate with customers. This is how they feel. These are their emotions.

In your marketing, find ways to create engaging and helpful content that will help ease anxiety, boredom, and stress which may be related to your type of business.

The positives sentiment was mostly around family and family time, which is the true silver lining with all of this. Something all of us will likely never experience again.

How long do consumers think COVID-19 will last?

Next, our Syracuse market research company asked consumers how long the crisis will last and when life would return to normal.

The takeaway here is most consumers understand this will be a long haul, depending on how they define LIFE AS NORMAL.

Nearly 1 in 3 said June, while nearly 50% said July or later.

how long will covid-19 distruption last

Consumers understand the lengthy potential duration of COVID’s impact. Many of you are probably thinking, should I market or advertise now?

According to an article from Think With Google, 85% of consumers in the U.S. still feel it is acceptable for companies/brands to communicate with them at this time.

But the term used was communicate. Not market. Not sell.

Think about ways to transition messaging from direct sales pitches to HELPING people in times of crisis.

We know fear, anxiety, and stress are high from those open-ends we just looked at. How can your product or service benefit the consumer? Or alleviate top concerns?

For example, if you work at a bank or credit union…

      • Share content around how to get updates on stimulus checks with links to the .gov site
      • Post or share articles on how to save money with particular accounts
      • Considerations before taking out a loan
      • Run an ad mentioning how you will be waiving checking fees due to financial hardships

For example, if you are a CPG or consumer packaged goods brand…

      • Offer money-saving tips to cook more from home
      • Tips to meal plan for the week
      • Tips for saving money on groceries

It’s taking a step back and thinking about the bigger picture in a time of crisis. Thinking beyond your business or product.

For example, if you are a restaurant…

      • Try to ease the concern around exposure to the virus when doing takeout food
      • Talk about the steps around the safety and sanitation protocol for pickup orders
      • Use pics or a walk-through video
      • Try to get consumers to try take-out with you for the 1st time and get past that initial barrier

Once those concerns are set aside they will be more likely to return a second or third time once they realize it’s safe.

A recent study by MFour with app users found that consumers were more likely to make a purchase after seeing/hearing COVID-19 safety messaging from a restaurant.

So make this clear on your app, website, and social pages if this is something you’re doing already. Don’t assume customers know.

For example, if your business has been forced to close…

In the unfortunate case where you have been forced to close indefinitely, think about other ways to hit the ground running when you return.

A simple example we talk to our clients about is running a simple survey on your own.

If you have a customer email list but haven’t sent anything to them since you’ve been closed, try something free on Google Forms or Survey Monkey.

Ask your customers about your restaurant.

      • What menu items should we add?
      • What do you like best about our restaurant?
      • Service, quality, price?
      • How can we improve? 

Our market research firm recommends this approach because it is a creative way to think about communicating and marketing without selling to customers during a crisis - but you continue to build a relationship.

Survey Writing 101: Basic Tips to Help Get Started with a Customer Survey.

What is the level of concern with COVID-19?


Here Drive Research asked about 4 different areas of concern around Coronavirus. The economy was the top concern among consumers. Even more so than health or jobs.

level of concern with covid-19

The concern with health was directly correlated to age. The older the respondent, the more concerned they were with their health, the younger the respondent, the less concerned they were.

What our experts saw with these segment breakouts, across the board, Massachusetts respondents were more concerned with each of these 4 topics compared to New York and Pennsylvania respondents.

We also found it interesting that Boomers and Traditionalists (the 2 oldest age groups) were the most concerned audience with their job or the job market. 

      • Maybe with the shift in the workforce to remote and more technology, is this audience worried it can keep up?
      • Are they worried about the long-term viability of their job/role if the economy continues to suffer as they approach retirement?
      • With these age groups is there also concern with their children's or grandchildren’s jobs as part of the job market?

Perhaps all of the above.

Where are consumers spending their time?

Here is an interesting chart on consumer time spent with a variety of media. We asked consumers if they are spending more, the same, or less amount of time with each.

The market research world has been measuring the digital takeover for a while now and this is driven home here.

how are consumers spending their time since covid-19 started

Streaming, social media, online search, smartphone apps, and even news websites are seeing 50% to 60% of consumers saying they are spending more time with those.

What does this mean for you? More opportunities to get in front of your customers and new customers. 

Singling out social media for a moment. A platform like Facebook is seeing record levels of usage since COVID hit but it’s not translating to more ad revenue.

Businesses have reduced or frozen advertising dollars. This creates a major gap and potential opportunities to engage consumers since the bus is empty right now.

Brands have a real chance to stand out right now with limited competition.

Learn 4 benefits of conducting market research on Facebook during COVID-19.

Also, some interesting notes for each market.

Massachusetts is more likely to spend more time with many channels. But also, some channels that pop for New York and Pennsylvania as well.

A recent national study by our friends at Luth Research found 79% plan to continue to use the online shopping apps the same amount or more once COVID passes.

This indicates a long-term adoption of new digital behaviors.

If there is a way to allow your shoppers to check out online for your business or jump into e-commerce with an app, now is the time to think about adopting or investing in this tech to improve the customer experience.

The usage could be long-lasting. It’s a short-term strategy to help with online sales during COVID with long-term benefits.

Some interesting generational breakdowns too.

Gen Z is more likely to spend additional time with nearly all of these channels.

Lastly, Millennials are the most likely audience to spend MORE time with newspapers since COVID began.

Which our research team thought was really interesting. And unexpected.

      • Maybe they are looking for cost-saving coupons with the Sunday circulars due to some financial strains?
      • Or are they simply more interested in the news and politics of COVID?

This may be the reason millennials have been reading newspapers more often during COVID-19.

How has purchasing or shopping behavior changed since the crisis began?

Topping the list of categories consumers are buying more from include:

      1. Groceries
      2. Household supplies and cleaning
      3. Health, wellness, and personal care
      4. Entertainment services


Breaking this down a bit, entertainment services having increased spending, which directly ties to more time spent with streaming on the prior slide.

More time to watch = more subscriptions.

The biggest drops in spending among consumers?

The biggest drops in spending among consumers are:

      1. Restaurants
      2. Apparel
      3. Beauty products

In a time where social distancing is encouraged and so many of us are working from home, this was not that shocking to our market research agency. Things like work clothes, beauty products are no longer needed as much.

A funny data point recently shared by Aeropostale and Russel Athletic: 20 to 40% upticks in sales of sweatpants.

There really is data for everything, and if you can’t find it, you can ask about it in a survey!

Are there plans to spend on indoor or outdoor home improvement projects?

Our market research company asked an additional question on indoor and outdoor home improvement projects.

3 in 4 consumers still have a project in the works over the next 6 months including 15% who were planning to spend over $5,000.

Even with the poor economy and concerns, households are still planning to spend.

What age group is spending MORE?

Nearly across the board in categories, Gen Z was the most common age group to state they were spending more.

Many who fit the Gen Z profile are starting or looking to start their professional careers. So why are they the most-freely spending generation here?

Our experts found a study from CNBC that stated nearly 2 in 3 Gen Z consumers do not know how much savings are in their bank account which could contribute to a lack of knowledge of their finances.

Or maybe with more time and easy access to online shopping at their fingertips, there is more temptation?

It could be a number of reasons as to why they are more likely to spend more overall.

Lastly, Millennials are the most likely to spend more on alcohol and baby products.

What kind of advertising or marketing messages are best during this time?

A question we received during the Q&A portion of the webinar was: What kind of messages are best during this time? Especially sales-related industries such as car dealerships and financial services. 

First and foremost, your message should add value and be helpful.

If you are a car dealership, be understanding.

We realize that your family might be rethinking that new vehicle purchase, here are some helpful tips to make sure you make the right decision on a vehicle when you are ready.

      • Lease vs. Own
      • Pre-own vs. New
      • Must-have features to consider vs. Nice to have

Offer content that provides information to relieve some of that stress around a big purchase like this.

To help local car dealerships navigate through these difficult times, we are offering a FREE download of the Drive Research 2019 Central New York Dealership Report.

If you are in financial services, this time is ripe for you to get your message out there.

There may not be another service that people are looking for more help in than this in terms of investing, retirement funds, college savings, family savings, etc.

Be willing to offer advice and tips on your website, social media, and other non-paid channels if you cannot afford to spend on marketing right now.

Just genuinely help and build relationships as a go-to source.

Will the pandemic create more competition?

Several of our local clients and small businesses have expressed concern with the expected consumer shift to virtual customer dealings.

Thinking that it may remove the need for consumers to feel like they have to do business locally without a need to visit in-person. A valid concern right?

Initially from this data, the assumption has some legs for professional service organizations.

covid-19 create broader competition


1 in 3 consumers agrees they are more likely to search outside of the area now for lawyers, accountants, financial advisors, consultants, and other like-businesses as they gather more comfort with virtual meetings.

This puts additional pressure on businesses to rank in SEO and use pay-per-click so they can ensure they are found when searched.

The shift in mindset here is rather than local being a must-have factor it could develop into a nice-to-have for professional services.

Meaning if a consumer is open to working with anyone in the United States, being local would be a secondary differentiator for you from a competitor in California.

The bright side of this for your local business is that it also works the other way.

Your target market area has the potential to expand beyond Massachusetts, New York, or Pennsylvania as consumers become more comfortable with virtual meetings.

How will consumers make use of stimulus checks?

In the survey, Drive Research also inquired about stimulus checks which many consumers have already received or will receive shortly by mail.

Supporting sentiment around the concern with the economy, health, and jobs you could argue the top 5 uses of the stimulus money will be for necessary living expenses.

      • Groceries and food
      • Bills
      • Emergency fund
      • Paying off loans or debt
      • Rent or mortgage

Beyond those more necessary expenses, we see things like home improvement projects, supporting small businesses, and saving it for a future vacation/trip.


Are there plans to spend the stimulus check on future travel or vacations?

Our market research firm also conducted a travel/tourism study on COVID impacts in Upstate NY.

To give you a sneak peek there, what we found was there were a lot of plans for shorter road trips after COVID-19 ends, less so trains, buses, and planes.

This will ultimately lead to more local and regional travel in the near-term as people ease their way back into crowds and major vacations.

When we move forward to a “new normal,” will these COVID consumer habits shift or stick? 

This is the question that everyone is wondering. Will my customers go back to normal or will they continue with these changes in behaviors?

The short answer is yes and no. It really depends on your vertical.

The impact on banking could very well be long-lasting.

Many consumers were already using digital banking and this pandemic has kicked that into high gear.

The impact on restaurants could go either way.

With restaurants, many will still want to experience getting out and dining out once social distancing restrictions end, but will the whole pick-up process be a lot smoother now for everyone and continue to be used?

Will apps like Grub Hub increase usage or will restaurants build their own pick-up or delivery apps?

Car dealerships will likely see 0 shift.

With car dealerships, consumer habits are likely to shift back to normal. Customers want to get in cars, touch, and play around with features, test drive, etc.

Although some dealerships are doing limited sales in a very structured way, that’s a vertical I would imagine that will go back to normal.

If anything, this COVID pandemic really should force every business to rethink their customer experience.

What trends will continue during and after COVID-19 for certain verticals?

The consumer behavior survey also dove into specific verticals like education, healthcare, and banking.



First off, we asked consumers if they are currently taking or if they would be willing to take online courses or training to further skills.

Nearly 1 in 2 are taking courses or training, or would consider doing so. Half of the general public!

It is driven by consumers having more time, concern about their profession, and other things that force one to rethink skill sets in times of crisis.

In other words, consumers are wondering now more than ever, will my job be stable in 5 years? Should I rethink my career?

If you work in higher education or a setting where you can offer classes to help consumers improve themselves, it seems like it is an excellent time to communicate this message or get them to sign-up for coursework or certificates.

Massachusetts residents were more likely than New York and Pennsylvania consumers to express interest here.


Nearly 2 in 3 are more likely to consider telehealth or digital healthcare since COVID began.

Our market research firm knows from prior findings health is a large concern for the vast majority, so this translates to more openness to virtual appointments, phone appointments, and so on.

This is a service that has been slowly adopted over the years, but I will be curious to see if Coronavirus pushes telehealth into the mainstream (contactless doctor appointments and prescription pickup, and so on).

Digital Banking

Through Advance Local, we know from Nielsen data many have already adopted digital banking services in their market.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 1 in 2 use it regularly in the Northeast.

Not surprisingly with branches closing and drive-thru being the only option for many, consumers are jumping more to digital banking.

If you work in this space consider making concessions for consumers in these times. Things like...

      • Increasing the maximum mobile check deposit thresholds
      • Making forms and paperwork available online
      • Other changes to ride the wave of more digital users

Learn more about how to adapt your bank or credit union strategy to the new normal, caused by COVID-19.

Travel and Hospitality

Additionally, our market research firm was asked what prediction we saw for the travel and hospitality industry. Our response was that we are likely to see more local and regional travel in the near-term.

Bigger trips really depend on the crisis and how quickly it ends, how safe people feel, how much they have saved, etc.

I also think there will be a lot of social influence which impacts things like big vacations and trips.

Families concerned may wait for other friends and families to go out and book vacations, understand that it went fine, they returned safe, and go from there.

There will likely be a portion of trail-blazers that will jump in head first early including younger age groups who are less concerned with their health, but the majority of the return will be spread out over time.

Will working-from-home continue after social distance guidelines are eliminated?

This next question inquired about working from home policies with employers and exploring if businesses will be more flexible once COVID-19 is over.

wfh during covid-19 - will it last

What we see in this data is nearly 2 in 3 consumers stated working from home will be a VERY REAL OPTION post-COVID with their employer.

      • 30% already have some flexibility
      • 17% stated their employer will be somewhat more open
      • 16% stated their employer will be much more open to remote options

Businesses may be seeing benefits with things like

      1. Productivity
      2. Employee satisfaction
      3. Efficiencies
      4. Decreased need for rent and office space and the impact this will have on commercial real estate
      5. Decreased overhead

COVID-19 is likely bringing these benefits and cost savings to the forefront whereas they may have never been realized.

3 Main Takeaways from the COVID-19 Consumer Behavior Study

First, find creative ways to communicate with your audience.

If you are not comfortable selling in a time of crisis, find other ways to offer advice, tips, engaging information, cost-saving content to build relationships with your customers.

Therefore, when consumers have additional money to spend, they will come to you first.

Second, although it’s challenging right now to market and sell, there is also opportunity.

Our market research company saw bored as the top word choice. The definition of bored is a person being unoccupied.

As evidenced by the many media channels where consumers saying they are spending more time, many of those sources online.

There is little competition online for ad space, so the right message could make a huge impact. Don’t disappear.

Third, we also saw high-levels of concerns with the economy, health, and jobs.

This all results in the general public seeking answers and changing behavior, which drew hundreds of you to this session today.

Be that source of guidance for your customers where you can. Ask yourself are there things I am learning through this that make it easier for customers to do business with us?

Keep integrating those after COVID-19 ends.

Contact Drive Research

Drive Research is a national market research company, located in Upstate New York. If you are interested in obtaining this type of information for your local community or on behalf of your customers, we can help.

The information and feedback collected from a community survey can be repurposed into webinars, white papers, blog posts, social shares, and more. 

Contact us to get started through any of the four ways below.

subscribe to our blog

Consumer Behavior