The UK economy came to a sudden halt in March 2020 as Covid-19 lockdown measures were introduced. The recovery will be much slower and held back by inertia, but there are things you can do now to help overcome it.
Imagine you're travelling along in your car at 30 mph. You've approached a set of traffic lights that have a traffic camera fixed on them and, as you get close, they change to amber. You're not sure that you've time to nip through before they turn to red, and you don't want to risk a fine, so you stamp on the brakes and come to a sudden stop - from 30 mph to zero in what feels like the blink of an eye.
That's pretty much what the UK economy did in March. It just suddenly stopped, and it's pretty much been stuck on red ever since.
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Now, returning to our driving metaphor, you're sat in the car and the lights turn to green. You set off from your stationary position, climbing up through the gears until you reach 30 mph again. Getting from zero to 30 mph takes longer than the sudden stop, doesn't it?
That's because of inertia, and we are almost certainly going to experience it on the road to our collective post-Coronavirus economic recovery.
What is inertia?
Newton’s First Law of Motion explains the behaviour of stationary and moving objects. It states that a rested object stays at rest unless moved by another force. Inertia is essentially an object's resistance to changing its velocity.
Put simply, inertia tries to keep a resting object where it is...whether that's the car in our analogy or the economy and ability of businesses to start getting back to something that looks like normal.
Like setting off from the traffic lights, it's going to take time and distance to get back to pre-Coronavirus levels of activity.
When lockdown measures are relaxed and social distancing advice is softened, consumers are not necessarily going to emerge en masse with their wallets open to start spending on our high streets; supply chains will not start moving at their usual speed; and businesses will not suddenly unleash their buying power.
There is going to be a lot of remaining uncertainty for some time.
At an individual level, people will still be worried about their potential for becoming infected unless or until there's a vaccine and/or reliable anti-viral therapeutics available. So they'll exhibit more caution, perhaps still avoiding public places and crowded environments.
Businesses will react to this by continuing to conserve cash because they'll be reluctant to turn-on the spending taps too early.
This uncertainty is going to be pervasive.
But we'll all still need to take our foot off the brake and start that forward journey at some point, so how do we minimise the inertia?
OK, we're back in the car at the traffic lights.
When they turn to green, we can engage the gears, take our foot off the brake and push down on the accelerator to create the force needed to get the car rolling, and then we can change-up up through the gears without over-revving the engine as we go, eventually getting to our previous cruising speed of 30 mph.
Alternatively, whilst the lights are still on red, we can engage the parking brake, select first gear, put our foot on the accelerator and start building revs whilst the car remains held by the brakes. And, as soon as we see the amber light, we can release the parking brake and feel the car propelled forward much more rapidly as all that pent-up energy is suddenly released. And we can stay in low gear for longer, changing-up at much higher revs. In short, we can use the car's controls and functionality in a way that helps overcome inertia more quickly and gets us up-to-speed faster.
To an extent, we can do that in our businesses too, by priming our engines and straining against the brakes.
Start thinking now about how you can give your customers what they want and need in the 'new normal'
While a vaccine and workable medicines are sought, and in what might be a year of continued uncertainty and low levels of economic activity, your customers are still going to want and need things.
Given that it's generally quiet, now is the time to start thinking about what that demand might look like. Will it be firm and steady or supple and intermittent? What can you do that shows you empathise with the way your customers are feeling and that you understand the decisions they're making and their reluctance to spend? How can you adapt your offering to suit, where are you going to look for customers, what will they look like, and how are you going to communicate with them?
If you run a restaurant, you might be particularly vulnerable to customers wanting to avoid enclosed spaces with lots of other people present. But they'll still be hungry (pun intended) for the experience of dining outside their own home after weeks of lockdown.
So you may want to think about how you could re-open with fewer covers, set seating times, a restricted menu (that keeps your produce costs to a minimum and speeds-up the dining process) and then use an offer to entice customers in.
To instil confidence, you'll also need to show that you're doing everything you reasonably can to minimise infection risks, so you could insist on online pre-ordering of meals and drinks (so staff don't have to wait on tables) and invite customers to collect their own food from a designated area of the restaurant when ready, rather than taking it to their tables. This will also reduce risks to you and your employees.
Visible signs of personal and venue hygiene will also need to be available, including hand sanitiser stations and lots of extra wiping of handles and surfaces.
Then think of a way to communicate these special arrangements and the deals you have available so that potential customers can see you understand what might otherwise put them off.
This is all the equivalent of that fast-start from the traffic lights. It's that engine priming, bringing-up the revs but holding there until ready to surge forward. It's about making changes now that will propel your business beyond that inertia when things start to ease up.
And it's the true essence of marketing. People often confuse marketing with advertising or selling. They think it's about getting people and businesses to buy what they make or serve. But, in reality, it's about understanding wants and needs and then profitably satisfying them.
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Madeline Carpenter is the founder of Market ‘Til You Make It. When she’s not serving her clients, she geeks out on board games, cider, and challenging her friends to top her awesome karaoke skills. She calls Bloomington, Minnesota home.
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