Are Consumer Behaviors Changing in Light of COVID-19?

In 2020, the impact of COVID-19 forced retailers to rapid decision-making and advancement like never before. In a year described as ‘The Great Acceleration’ slow to move sectors like grocery saw digital adoption jump 53% in a year.
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In 2020, the impact of COVID-19 forced retailers to rapid decision-making and advancement like never before. In a year described as ‘The Great Acceleration’ slow to move sectors like grocery saw digital adoption jump 53% in a year.

In 2020, the impact of COVID-19 forced retailers to rapid decision-making and advancement like never before. In a year described as ‘The Great Acceleration’ slow to move sectors like grocery saw digital adoption jump 53% in a year. Target reported a 700% lift in curb-side pickup in Q3. With such upheaval, the critical question remains, have consumer behaviors changed for good?

From February – March 2021 TruRating polled over 100,000 customers using our point-of-sale feedback technology to investigate just that. The data presented in this report was collected from customers across a varied set of retailers, using both our in-store and digital surveying platforms.

The six questions we asked, suggest that while consumer behaviour has certainly been impacted by the pandemic climate, that the long-tail impact of this may be less severe than once expected.

In the light of an increasingly accelerated vaccine program, do retailers need to start preparing for ‘The Great Return’?

The Data

64% of in-store shoppers claim their habits haven’t changed at all due to COVID. Online shoppers appear to be more cautious, with 20% of polled customers saying they plan to use this channel permanently even after the pandemic.

Again, in-spite of the spike of use in 2020, less than 10% of consumers claim that their use of online grocery channels will be a permanent move. As grocers look to sustain a boom year, the in-store offer will remain a critical concern for a majority of customers.

Only 5% of customers – in-store and online – plan to use BOPIS (buy online pickup in-store) services permanently. While safety concerns have driven an increased adoption, the data suggests for most this was a practical necessity rather than motivated choice.

85% of in-store and 79% of online customers will continue to visit physical retail outlets with the same frequency as they once did once health and safety risks are no longer a concern. Online is growing but the ‘physical is dead’ narrative, increasingly appears out of touch.

79% of consumers choose online for convenience over price and safety. For retailers this is a mindset to be conscious of – if you can’t replicate the in-store experience online, how convenient can you make it for your customers to shop with you instead?

We see a strikingly similar response on either channel to the question of changing shopping behaviours – with 37% in-store and 38% online responding that COVID has had no impact. A large swing in behaviour occurred in 2020 – but how quickly will the pendulum return?

The ‘Tru’ View

There is no doubt that the last year has required retailers to adapt and innovate like never before. However, suggestions that the pandemic has created a seismic, permanent, and singular shift in our expectations of shopping look to be unfounded. When it comes to the simple act of shopping it appears that most consumers yearn for a return to the experience of visiting stores, interacting with sales staff, physically browsing items before purchase and maybe even just being part of a busy crowd.

This is not to say that retail will ever or should ever be the same again but maybe more that retailers need to look to ensure that the past investments that they have made in improving their digital offering can now work seamlessly with and even allow for a better in store experience.

Consumers are clear that they don’t want a digital only experience in the future but if digital can take on some of the heavy lifting of stock tracking, search, consumer reviews and delivery then maybe this will allow for the store to truly become the full experience of retail theatre that has been promised for so long.

Most of all this will require retailers to stop thinking about and managing the two channels as separate and interchangeable and finally embrace the promise of omni-channel retail.

Gareth Johns, Chief Data Officer, TruRating

What are the experts saying?

Time Will Tell

It may be right that most thing things won’t change – but I believe enough will change to make the future different from the past. The question for retailers to ask about those consumers who do keep their new habits is how do I get them into the store and no-one quite knows the answer to that just yet.

Richard Kestenbaum, Forbes Columnist and Partner, Triangle Capital

It Will Vary by Retailer and Generation

In my research on generational purchasing behavior, I’ve noticed that consumers are ready to get back to “normal” shopping behavior. The study found that 85% of in-store customers will continue to visit physical retailers with the same frequency as they once did when the world reopens. I sense a variance in that percentage, based on the retailer in question and the in-store experience they provide.

Grocers that provide an experience that’s purely convenience-driven will continue to see a high percentage of delivery and BOPIS orders. Many consumers will continue to pay $10 for delivery rather than waste a chunk of their lives visiting stores. Brands and retailers that create differentiated in-person events, on the other hand, will benefit from a “Silver Surge” of mature vaccinated consumers and next-gens that crave new life experiences. More than ever, post-pandemic store visits will be inspired by the amount of life that retailers can pack into store visits, and the level to which customers can share that activity with their online audience.

Jasmine Glasheen, Principal Writer & CEO, Jasmine Glasheen & Associates

Product and Service Have Changed

Retailers provided customers with new ways of receiving product, and those changes will be permanent. Store associates took on sophisticated new tasks during COVID, making advanced training and improved communications table stakes.

Cathy Hotka, Principal Cathy Hotka & Associates

The Lines Between Digital and Physical Will Continue to Blur

Shoppers are looking for a greater digital mix, even within physical shopping.   The lines have blurred, where digital could mean buy online pick up in-store or that 42% of online orders are delivered locally.   Similarly, in-store experiences will increasingly have digital components.  Mobile apps to guide through the store.  Interactive displays that have context to what you are shopping for and who you are.  The ability to scan and item in-store and have it delivered faster than you would have gotten home in the first place.  It’s an exciting time of harmonized retail and unified commerce.

Trevor Sumner, CEO at Perch, Forbes and Inc. Contributor

It’s All About Brick and Mortar Right Now

The services and conveniences shoppers enjoyed during the pandemic are here to stay. Consumers are still shopping online, but now it’s all about brick-and-mortar because they are itching to get back into stores. Retailers need to ensure that once shoppers arrive the experience is better than what they anticipated it to be.

Kizer & Bender, Retail Anthropologists and Consultants, Kizer & Bender

Purchasing Platforms Reflect Changing Sensibilities

The pandemic has accelerated pre-COVID consumer buying trends and shifts in the retail landscape, giving newfound momentum to rising purchasing platforms, like digital marketplaces from Alibaba to Etsy. Etsy, for one, swiftly filled a need for masks at the outset of the pandemic, serving up a critically in-demand product while building good will and raising the profile of the independent businesses that sell on its site. Etsy is by no means new, but its recent success along with the growing prominence of other e-tail marketplace platforms from Amazon to Alibaba intersects with changing buying sensibilities: These platforms are venues for independent merchants, small businesses and artisans at a time when consumers, particularly Millennials, the nation’s largest buying cohort, are voting with their dollars for companies that reflect their values, like supporting local merchants, and increasingly value items with a one-of-a-kind feel. 

Barbara Thau, Senior Features Editor, CO – by US. Chamber of Commerce

We Go to Stores to Discover

Retail is roaring back to relevance. While 2020 was a pendulum swing to online due to massive store closures, we’re already seeing mall traffic quickly getting back to normal. Real data shows trips to Starbucks are higher than they were in 2019. The pendulum is swinging back to physical stores as shoppers are keen to get on with their lives. While we go online to buy the staples, we go to stores to discover. Woe to the brand that pivots to online, cuts staff, and goes back to discounting. It would be like at the very moment Luke Skywalker needed his lightsaber he took out his phone to find an app.

Bob Phibbs, CEO, The Retail Doctor

The Customer is the Center, but Stores are the Anchor

There’s no doubt that shopping habits changed during the pandemic for many people, but the question on everyone’s mind is which changes are here to stay, and how many consumers have permanently shifted their shopping habits? This survey tells us that while many new habits may have formed, it seems shoppers are eager to return to many of their “old ways” of shopping and buying. It’s hard to predict future behavior based on shopper intent so retailers need to ensure they can accommodate both old and new habits for some time to come until shopping truly returns to “normal”!

One thing is certain – stores are what will anchor the shopping journey for many consumers. Stores are not going away, and many shoppers feel the need to return to stores because all the various digital channels they relied on during the pandemic just didn’t satisfy their desire for product discovery and the human interaction of shopping. Stores provide that, and shoppers are ready to return!

Ricardo Belmar, Retail Transformation Thought Leader & Founder, Retail Razor Advisory

Looking for a time-travel take on the opinions posted here, why not check out our post from May of last year – 13 Retail Experts on Life After COVID – do they still hold true?

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