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What does the future of retail finance look like?

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Image of the post author Derek Goh

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in various markets has been undeniable. Some sectors like travel and hospitality have been hard-hit, while physical retail has suffered badly too due to social distancing and lockdown measures. Workers in these industries are affected as well, with their livelihoods threatened by uncertainty and instability. Within this context, money worries are certainly in the minds of many, as they struggle to make ends meet.

Even amongst the fortunate who still have their jobs, it is likely that they would have been impacted as well, albeit at a different level. Without having to worry about the ‘now’, they would be thinking about the ‘next’ and the ‘near future’. Economic downturns are not new, but one caused by a global virus outbreak is a little harder to manage and predict. As such, the more financially-minded consumer will have to start to think about what their investment portfolios should really comprise, how they can be economically-sheltered from the next disaster, and what kinds of financial planning will allow them to not just weather the storm, but also thrive in the long run.  

So what should retail banks, financial institutions and fintech entities prioritize, as the pandemic improves? What role do these organizations need to play in their customers’ lives, and on what kinds of principles do their strategies need to be based? We explore 3 key areas: consumer spending patterns, investing and cash, sharing our thoughts by examining what is likely to change in the post-COVID world, and what will remain the same.

Consumer Spending Patterns: Between Saving and Spending

Short term changes

Within Asia, two markets that recently relaxed their lockdown situations were China and South Korea. In both cases, there were instances of what is now an increasing familiar term in post-COVID coverage: ‘revenge spending’. The Hermes flagship store in Guangzhou saw its biggest single-day earning ever, when millions of Yuan were spent by previously cooped-up shoppers on luxury items. While in Thailand, which recently lifted the ban on alcohol sales at retail level, saw unprecedented levels of consumers binge-buying wines, beers, and spirits.

Regardless of the market and product category, one thing is common: perceived scarcity will motivate consumers to spend disproportionately in the short term. This also illustrates how the fundamental principles of behavioral economics and the multitude states of cognitive biases (too many to name here) are once again proven true.

Long term trends

In the longer term though, what are we to make of consumer spending and saving mindsets, in turn motivating actions/behaviors, which will be meaningful for financial entities to action on?

We see two likely scenarios, each combining a certain degree of emotional and rational assessment of how individuals see their ‘now’ and ‘(near) future’:

  1. Excessive fear and over-reaction to the economic fall-out of the pandemic and feeling the extreme need to be more assured/confident of their financial states, leading to reduced spending/motivation to seek out additional/side income
  2. Resignation and coming-to-terms with their helplessness when it comes to managing their finances (i.e. surrendering to the insurmountable force of macroeconomic changes), and maintaining the status quo, feeling good about creating/maintaining their sense of ‘normal’

There will certainly be many shades between these two extremes, just as there will also be minorities falling outside of these as well (e.g. increased spending/acquiring material goods to achieve the sense of security), but what’s certain is that financial institutes will have to play the role of showing the path to fruitful savings and meaningful spending, without leaning too far into one side or the other. An established bank that has a reputation for best-in-class credit cards in consumers’ minds may take the opportunity to come up with a savings product that validates a consumer’s side hustle, while a fintech that’s trying to break into the travel space may have to use this chance to re-think what their value-proposition really is to consumers who have to temporarily shelve their wanderlust.

Underlying all these, of course, is the presumption that the entity has a ‘trust bank’ upon which to draw notions of credibility and capability; all the money in the world thrown behind a huge messaging campaign in the post-COVID world will not help, if that trust was not already there in the consumers’ pre-COVID reality. 

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Investing: Between Risks and Returns

Short term changes

In the pre-COVID days, any sort of consumer research on investment products/journeys/choice and preference of investment instruments, often boils down to 3 main points:

  • How clearly the product information is introduced, and how much of its mechanism is understood
  • How well the investor can conceptualize the product for himself/herself, and how he/she imagines it within his/her portfolio
  • How he/she feels about it on the overall level

This combination of rational considerations and emotional reassurances will likely not change dramatically in the ‘new normal’, but there is the need to acknowledge the likelihood of investors perceiving the market to be more VUCA (i.e. volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous), thus leading them to re-assess whether it’s the ‘right time’ to be investing in the first place.

Based on past economic downturns, alternative investment instruments (e.g. art, whisky, coveted luxury brand handbags, etc.) have also started to become more commonplace and offer investors another way to grow their money. However, the mechanisms of such tools are often not clear, and usually complement a portfolio that’s still predominantly stocks/shares driven. Insurance-based products are also believed to be a likely winner in the world of money management; as consumers become more risk-averse, bonds and capital-guaranteed products are logically seen to be aligned with immediate appetites.

Long term trends

All that said, though, it is still necessary to highlight that very few investors carry out investments purely motivated by fear of losing; the savvy ones are aware of the notion of calculated risks, and the really experienced ones within that small bunch of savvy investors also know that ultimately the global market is very much sentiment-driven (read: emotions, cue behavioral economic principles again). This highlights the importance of ‘confidence’ and decision-making based on knowing all the ‘facts’ available at a specific point in time, which is actually the fundamental strategy applied by many governments around the world which have successfully contained the pandemic in their respective countries.

Therefore, in the post-COVID world, we feel retail entities that will do well with investors are those that understand how to pull the ‘clarity’ lever, showing their workings around how they feel a product/tool will help the investor achieve their wealth goals, while acknowledging the presence of VUCA factors and understanding what kinds of emotions can arise from investing in a global economy that’s still ‘finding its feet’.

Consumer perceptions of cash: is it still “king’?

Short term changes

Even before the onset of the pandemic, it is becoming increasingly clear that many markets globally are moving towards implementing cashless systems, or at least encouraging consumers to rely less on cash. Though not all executions were done well (e.g. India’s sudden and forceful removal of certain currencies from the market create a financial nightmare amongst consumers which took many months of correcting), the movement is at least gaining momentum, and acceptance appears to be higher in markets which are traditionally cash-focused

Covid-19 containment measures have basically forced upon various societies the need to pay for items in a cashless way; the removal of physical retail to adhere to safe distancing measures meant that opportunities to use physical cash have reduced dramatically, while paying for online purchases tends to be electronic in nearly all cases (save for cash-on-delivery options). Not having to handle cash within current context also means reduced chances of infection through virus transference on surfaces, so it appears to have multiple advantages that’s aligned with the ‘sign of the times’

What this means, though, is while the transition is quite smooth for the cashless consumer, the cash-minded one will likely have to think about how that impacts other parts of their financial realities. Money management and tracking, for one, will likely need to take new forms if cash spending is slowly being phased out from their daily lives. Another area which will likely see some change is in digital payment security: with increased volumes of payment, it will be naïve to assume that similar online safety mechanisms will suffice. To prevent any backlash that can potentially happen due to insecure cashless payment systems, it is an area within the financial industry that needs immediate attention, such that consumer confidence in the system may be sustained

Long term trends

However, we must not confuse “accelerated pace of change” with consumers loving the new ‘state of play’ for cashless; we are of the opinion that consumer sentiments towards the ‘meaning’ of cash (e.g. freedom/fluidity, security, options, empowerment, tangibility, etc.) may in fact deepen in the post-pandemic world, due to perceived uncertainties and insecurities (as we have mentioned above). What this then means is that the notion of ‘cashless’ may either need to be strengthened such that it goes beyond attributes like ‘convenience’ and ‘ease’, or relegated to specific consumption scenarios that may not need to be as ‘meaningful’ as cash 

This has important implications for the numerous fintech institutions globally that are trying to ride on the wave of new financial attitudes in the ‘new normal’; whatever solutions they’re proposing (e.g. payments, investments, money management, etc.) will likely be based on a cashless model, so on top of proving the validity of their use cases, the fundamental value that going cashless needs to be just as apparent. Only then can it achieve both resonance and acceptance amongst consumers, as they navigate their financial world and arrive at their own conclusions on what they will relegate to the cash ‘world’, and what they will gladly make ‘cashless’.

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