It would be an understatement to say the pandemic has significantly impacted how we live. Our homes have become offices and classrooms. Our shopping lists have been narrowed down to the essentials. And our social lives now take place through screens. With the seismic shift in human behavior also comes a rocky new landscape for retailers. From supply chain shortages and forced closures to stringent new health and safety measures to where and what shoppers buy, everyone has been impacted by these changes.
While the enormity of the changes is too vast to boil down into one article, here are three major shifts in consumer behavior and what that means for consumer goods companies like yours.
With high unemployment rates, uncertainty about the future, and fewer reasons to shop, consumer spending has declined in extraordinary numbers. Discretionary purchases in industries like restaurants, apparel, footwear, travel, and out-of-home entertainment have dropped significantly. Instead, consumers have kept their spending on essential items like food, toiletries, and other household items, with the toilet paper shortage a prime example of consumer stockpiling behavior.
While retailers may see a spike in sales during these peak “pantry loading moments” as consumers stock up, the consumer will ultimately not necessarily repurchase them as frequently going forward, thus affecting the bottom line for companies down the road. To mitigate those losses, companies will have to innovate other ideas to get customers to keep up their spending.
For countries like China that are considered “past peak,” it appears that consumption of non-essential items like apparel and in department stores has not picked up significantly as consumers predict their income to be negatively impacted for a long time. This indicates that the road back to consumer spending pre-pandemic may be a long one.
It just makes sense that more shoppers are now buying online as it’s safer to get goods delivered to your home than entering public spaces. With many stores closed, the only option to make a purchase is to order online for delivery or curbside pickup. And when free shipping is offered, it’s an easy decision to order goods right to your door.
A survey from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development found that more than 50% of consumers expect to continue their digital habits adopted during the COVID-19 outbreak, so this is a pattern we can expect to last beyond the pandemic. It remains to be seen if shoppers who miss the in-person shopping aspects will return to brick-and-mortar stores in the same volume as they did before the pandemic.
However, one in-store shopping behavior that’s difficult to replicate online is browsing. Stores are intentionally designed to catch shoppers’ attention with attractive displays that lead to impulsive decisions and add value to the shopper’s bill. It’s easy to find exactly what you’re searching for with online shopping, so the browsing component is somewhat removed. One Toronto grocery store tackled the challenge by creating a virtual shopping experience that allows shoppers to travel throughout a realistic store model and explore each section, making them more likely to add to their basket. It’s a great example of a brand adapting to the changing times with a simple and inventive solution.
One positive trend is the increasing tendency to “buy local” instead of putting more dollars in multinational companies’ coffers. As small neighbourhood shops and independent restaurants decimate and “For Lease” signs paper empty storefronts, there’s a notion that we must do what we can to save beloved businesses from going under and ensure there will be some left on the other side of the pandemic.
Unfortunately, with everyone pinching pennies, smaller businesses struggle to compete with the bargains and steep discounts that companies like Amazon or Walmart can offer. However, as more people join the movement of supporting local, now is the time to capitalize on this growing wave of support. If you’re a small, independent business, proudly wave your local flag and let your neighbours know their help is needed more now than ever.
As everyone tries to stay safe, one benefit of smaller, local shops is that they have fewer visitors than a big store like Walmart, meaning the risk of exposure to the virus may be lower than in places with large groups. To build trust with shoppers and make them more comfortable visiting your store, stay informed and follow best safety practices. Reassure customers by explaining the measures you’re taking, both online and in-store.
It’s too early to tell what new consumer habits will remain as the health crisis evolves. Still, it’s essential to keep up-to-date so you can make the most informed decisions and adapt to the changes to ensure your business longevity.
 Blue, Alexis. COVID-19 has changed consumer behavior. What does it mean for the future? Phys.org, 2020. https://phys.org/news/2020-04-covid-consumer-behavior-future.html