Ongoing blanket coverage about daily COVID-19 case figures has turned locked-down Victorians into a state full of armchair statisticians – but as businesses stumble back towards the new normal, six months of measuring Australians’ consumer sentiment have confirmed that normality is about much more than case averages.

Australian life is currently just 55 per cent as “normal” as it was a year ago, according to the Australian Normality Index (ANI) – a rolling Forethought Research poll of consumer sentiment that has been tracking the impact of the pandemic on Australians’ attitudes and comfort levels with their everyday lives.

Forethought launched the weekly Australian Normality Index (ANI) on 1 April, leveraging similar work in the US to develop a rolling measure of consumer sentiment as the pandemic progressed.

At its commencement, Australians judged their lives to be just 36 per cent as normal as it was a year earlier.

Sentiment steadily improved as society came to grips with the pandemic’s implications, but in July sentiment nosedived from 65 per cent as the second wave took hold.

The index stabilised just days after Victoria’s strict Stage 4 lockdown took hold, suggesting that citizens saw the measures as a concrete step towards reclaiming normality.

Yet in a country filled with “lonely dresses and suits hanging in closets”, Forethought group CEO and founder Ken Roberts said during a recent Melbourne Business School webinar, “normal is an outcome, and we’ve identified the relative importance of the issues that drive feeling normal.”

Those factors, as measured through the ANI’s statistical models, include feeling comfortable being out in public, being able to make future plans, feeling confident in the economy, being able to access healthcare as usual, being able to fly domestically and internationally, and being able to buy groceries and other supplies as needed.

The analytics-driven Forethought firm has open-sourced the ANI data, making it available for download by anybody who may find it instructive – and, by all accounts, that particularly includes businesses trying to rebuild their own kind of normal.

Adapt or die

Indeed, despite the major impact of COVID-19 on consumer sentiment, a key part of the return to normal will be the degree to which businesses can embrace e-commerce to support their operations while minimising contact with customers.

A separate global survey of businesses found that 21 per cent of Australian companies admitted they were either totally unprepared or ‘not very prepared’ for the impact of COVID-19 on their business – with 78 per cent expecting that technology will dramatically change the way their organisations function in the next two years.

Of all the industries that Forethought is engaged with, Roberts said, fast food companies had proven to be the most resilient.

“They’ve done particularly well at mounting a real e-commerce and home delivery strategy”, he explained, adding that many retail and other brands “are scurrying to improve” after being caught flat-footed without a fallback strategy.

Based on customer satisfaction data, business attempts at recovery have been “pretty patchy,” he said, “and there are lots of fails going on.”’

Yet restoring consumer confidence in the post-COVID normal will require concrete progress in a number of other areas, Roberts said, with consumers currently forced to make their own assessments of a flood of data and information that are often presented with the best intentions – but not always received that way.

Constant news reports about COVID were informing the public about the pandemic but, he said, not necessarily helping improve perceptions of normality in a time when “anxiety is one of the biggest drivers of how people are feeling.”

“Raising anxiety but solving anxiety in the same article is actually what the readership wants,” he explained, but media “are not great at the latter.”

“They’ve been compliant and helpful with the government at raising anxiety, but the real question is whether they can aid in lowering it too.”

Despite increasing geopolitical tensions, global and local social instability, and ongoing anxiety around the COVID-19 spike in Victoria, he said, some people’s normality “is not 55, it’s 90” – suggesting that many people were, for whatever reason, coping much better than their peers.

In this context, analysis of ANI data may help guide the return to normal by identifying which areas those individuals see as being less or more stressful – and using those individuals’ lived experience as a model through which to engage those with lower scores.

The figures suggest, for example, that while global stability is the primary driver of consumer confidence overall, Victorians’ sense of normality is most driven by their confidence in the economy and their ability to make plans.

“If we’re going to feel good about the economy,” he said, “what can the individual business do to make their own customers feel less anxious?”

“Do you fix the economy to lower anxiety, or do you lower anxiety to fix the economy? And how do we turn back that level of anxiety and start moving towards normality?”