In July Los Angeles County announced that it was reintroducing mask requirements for all indoor spaces regardless of vaccination status.
The cause? A substantial rise in COVID-19 cases, the vast majority of which are among the unvaccinated.
With the dangerous Delta variant blazing through the United States, many in the business community are surprised at the continued slowdown in vaccination rates. They're also growing more concerned for the implications this lack of vaccine adoption will have on their businesses.
But on the heels of that concern, it's important to ask how anyone could have seen this vaccine hesitation coming, and with that foresight, how businesses can prepare for the bumps of this rocky road across operations, marketing and sales.
In Q4 of 2020, my team at Wheaton-based marketing agency Simon/Myers, in partnership with the researchers at Sparketing, presented a webinar focused on the results of a longitudinal study of consumers spanning April to October 2020.
Before Pfizer or Moderna ever became household names or two-dose jabs in arms, we wanted to understand what a theoretical vaccine rollout would look like and how vaccine adoption rates could help businesses predict shopper behaviors in a "new" normal that was still at least 6-12 months away.
As noted, roughly six months into the mass U.S. vaccination rollout, politicians, pundits and business leaders appear surprised by the slowing rate of vaccine adoption.
In early July, the CDC reported that 53% of the eligible U.S. population were fully vaccinated and 63% had at least one dose in their arm.
But this wasn't surprising news to Simon/Myers. Our study identified this dramatic slowdown in adoption rates back in November 2020 while predicting a worsening slowdown through the back half of 2021. According to our data, the United States could expect 43% of the population to have received the vaccine within the first three months of its mass availability, increasing to around 60% by the six-month mark. Which is exactly where the United States finds itself now.
While these numbers seem acceptable, what follows this initial time period quickly becomes alarming. By January 2022, the number of vaccinated individuals is only expected to grow to around 70%. And our study found that an alarming 19% of the U.S. population indicated that they would never get the vaccine, no matter the length of time.
There are some surprises no one can predict, but it's important for business leaders to stay ahead of the ones they can. As retail stores and foot traffic are slowly returning, businesses face an awkward, uneven negotiation surrounding consumer behavior both online and in-store.
Masking and distancing restrictions like those in Los Angeles may be reintroduced. Digital shopping habits consumers have grown accustomed to through quarantine will continue to reshape how, where, and when products and services are sold.
In short, business is going to be messy for the foreseeable future thanks in part to the long tail of slow vaccine adoptions.
But as the study from Simon/Myers and Sparketing demonstrates, much of the messiness is entirely predictable. And if it's predictable, businesses can get a jump start on the shifts they can expect to see, whether online or on the street.
If leaders know the transition is going to be messy, they can use research to better understand how to navigate profitably through the transition, integrating digital and physical experiences, but also operations, customer service, supply chain and more.
Every business leader needs a research-driven plan for how they can meet their customers and shoppers wherever they show up in the next 18 months, no matter the number of steps forward or back we take as a society.
While these leaders may not be able to control the actions of millions of Americans, they can make sure they are not caught off-guard by the consequences of those actions on their business.
• Brian Gee is head of strategy at Simon/Myers in Wheaton.