The great tech escape: Consumers turn to digital devices to ease pandemic isolation

Key takeaways

  • COVID-19 has led to many people hunkering down at home for weeks or even months.
  • While isolated, consumers have upped their media consumption across all devices.
  • With the intent to purchase technology standing up to budgetary constraints, businesses need to respond to accelerating trends.

It almost doesn’t matter where in the world you resided in 2020. Chances are you were at home for a significant portion of time, whether working, studying, looking after children or simply sheltering in place. 

A new survey from PwC US highlights what consumers have been doing in that time — voraciously consuming media, for information, entertainment and community. The survey asked consumers about their current tech-related habits and purchasing behaviour, as well as their future intent to consume and purchase technology products and services.

So how have digital lifestyles changed in the wake of the pandemic?

Technology use up across the board

Regardless of type, consumers are using their tech devices far more than they did before the pandemic, especially consumers aged 18 to 24. Avoiding crowds and adopting physical distancing, this age group in the US perceive staying home as the safest — maybe the only — current option. Nearly half of all respondents (47 percent) are using their smartphones significantly more, while 44 percent have expanded their TV watching.

Digital lifestyle Exhibit 1

Smartphones are here to stay

Looking ahead six months, consumers expect they may use their tech devices less — once the social distancing restrictions lift. In the US however, in light of recent spikes in infection rates, device usage might continue over the medium term. Well over half of the consumers surveyed say they may continue heavy smartphone use, while their use of other devices will likely taper off. 

Digital lifestyle Exhibit 2

Tech spending remains steady

The vast majority of respondents — 78 percent — are consuming more online services. Spending levels reflect this trend: 74 percent of consumers are spending as much or more money on technology as they did pre-pandemic, despite economic anxiety.

Leading the way are young consumers, aged 25 to 34. Almost 90 percent of them are consuming more online services, while 80 percent are spending as much or more money on technology as they did pre-pandemic. Closely following in online consumption are their contiguous cohorts — 18-24 year olds (86 percent reporting higher consumption and 77 percent spending as much or more on tech) and 35-44 year olds (with 82 percent and 75 respectively, respectively).

The human connection 

Many consumers have experienced a drop or loss of income from the recession following the pandemic. US consumers indicate that they may cancel certain monthly subscriptions, such as health club memberships (74 percent), product home-delivery services for household staples (73 percent), grocery delivery (65 percent) and music streaming (64 percent). 

However, more than two-thirds of consumers say they would not cancel their internet or mobile phone services. These subscriptions are particularly sticky with consumers aged 50 to 64.

Digital lifestyle exhibit 3

Keep consumers engaged over the long term

Having burrowed even more deeply into their digital lifestyles at a time when physical options are limited, consumers are primed for new tech opportunities. Almost two-thirds of respondents self-identify as early tech adopters, and 78 percent are consuming more online services since the start of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, 74 percent of respondents say they are spending as much or more money on digitally enabled media, entertainment, and health and lifestyle conveniences as they did pre-pandemic. This is despite the fact that more than 70 percent of US consumers say they have inadequate internet bandwidth and speed in their homes. Nor are they particularly concerned with digital security; most already have basic security protections in place.

Five ways businesses should respond

  1. Trends already in play before the pandemic are accelerating at previously unthinkable rates. To stay top of mind with consumers, despite economic anxiety, find ways to continually engage them with innovative new content and device packages that resonate. Think beyond the pandemic.
  2. Increased online consumption — likely leading to increased returns as measurement metrics evolve — has implications for infrastructure demand and planning. Invest in the storage and computing infrastructure needed to help support these higher consumption levels, especially as elements of remote work are likely to last well beyond the recovery.
  3. Analyse your customer data to determine preferences and behaviours by segment and category. Smart-home security cameras and virtual reality headsets are more popular with Millennials, for example. Keep these preferences in mind as you build out your plans to accommodate the reality of a global pandemic — and a post-pandemic world.
  4. While young consumers often lead the way on tech adoption, don’t neglect older consumers, who are often more loyal over the long term — and often have more disposable income. Both mobile (79 percent versus 68 percent) and internet service (78 percent versus 63 percent) are far more sticky with older consumers than all consumers surveyed.
  5. Conversely, continue appealing to young consumers — even those currently not in the workplace — because they will soon reach their prime earning years. Having grown up with technology, their propensity to use it in every aspect of their lives makes them very attractive customers.

Long term habits have changed

Many of these digital lifestyle habits are likely to carry over into the long term. Consumers say they expect to spend as much or more money on technology should the pandemic dissipate. In fact, 65 percent said they will buy a new tech device in the next six months. Tech products and services are now an inherent part of consumers’ digital lifestyles, and they are primed to continue spending on technology. 

Businesses, take note.

Visit the PwC US Consumer Intelligence Series site for further results from our consumer surveys.