How Covid-19 has shaped future consumer behaviours

  • event_available 08/01/2022
  • timer 20 mins to read

The last couple of years brought on events that the majority of society has never experienced before, and the COVID-19 pandemic that started in late 2019 is the perfect example of that. For the first time, we were faced with a health crisis on such a large scale, and that caused the whole world to practically stop for almost two years. The global economy certainly took a hit during the pandemic, as many industries, especially the travel and the restaurant industries, had to close almost completely, leaving many people either without jobs or with reduced income.

But that wasn't the only aspect of our lives that was affected. School, university, work - they all had to adapt to the situation. Online learning and remote work became a standard for many businesses and academic institutions.

While those are all changes that we felt, as it is pretty hard to, the world has also undergone some changes that were more subtle - and those are changes in consumer behaviour, both when offline and online shopping.

In this article, we will mainly talk about consumer behaviour-related changes that happened in the last few years because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the changes in life that it brought. However, we will also touch upon how it all started, how the situation looks today, and more.

The COVID-19 Pandemic - An Overview

First thing first, let's talk about how this whole thing started. Contrary to what some people might think, coronaviruses existed long before the pandemic even began. This means that COVID-19 wasn't a new thing in a sense, it was just a new strain of a virus that had already existed decades before.

Coronavirus disease, also known as COVID-19, is a respiratory disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Some of the primary symptoms include difficulty with breathing, fever, coughing, and fatigue, often accompanied by the loss of smell or/and taste. Sore throat, headaches, and other aches and pains may appear, but are not as common.

It is unknown where the virus causing the COVID-19 disease originated - while there were some conspiracy theories about it being created in a laboratory somewhere (usually those theories point to China), nothing has been confirmed as of today. As such, we can assume that it wasn't a human creation, but rather it came to be naturally.

What we do know, however, is that the first cases were reported in Wuhan, Hubei, China, in November 2019. Many of those were discovered in people who visited the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, although there's a chance that the spread between humans actually started earlier.

The attempts that have been made to stop the virus from spreading weren't successful, and soon the number of cases outside of China started to increase. On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Almost two months later, on March 11, 2020, WHO changed its status to a worldwide pandemic.

Many countries decided to implement their own restrictions to try and slow down the spread, including quarantine, tests, closing the borders and non-essential shops, and later, once vaccines were approved for use on humans, certificates confirming an individual is vaccinated.

In July 2021, The European Union introduced the EU Digital COVID Certificate, which served as proof that an individual was either vaccinated, had a negative COVID test done before the travel, or that they had recovered from COVID-19 within the last six months. Having it, as well as completing a Passenger Locator Form (PLF), was necessary to enter most of the European countries.

COVID-19 Today

Since the first cases were discovered, over 530 million people have tested positive for the coronavirus, while over 6 million of them have lost their lives as a result of it.

Today, the pandemic is finally starting to slow down, and the cases that do arise tend to be not as severe as they were in the beginning. Most of the restrictions that were put into place at the beginning of the pandemic or during its most contagious phase have been lifted, aside from a mask mandate here and there, and the need to be vaccinated to have a negative COVID test to enter some countries. Even the E Digital COVID Certificate is rarely required.

Even though the world is slowly returning to normal, it will most likely never be the same as before the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had and continues to have on the world is undeniable - especially when it comes to consumer behaviour, both in terms of offline and online shopping.

COVID-19 Pandemic and Its Influence on Customers

So, now that we've covered the background information, let's talk a bit more about the main topic of this article - the effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on customers.

The influence of the pandemic on consumers is very evident - and it's not only related to the way they do their shopping, which is probably the most prominent change we have noticed, but also the products they buy and the motivation behind the purchases.

In the very early days of the pandemic, many people let the fear of what is going to happen take over, which is why panic buying and impulse buying were very common. Even though those two things might sound like the same thing, they are actually quite different.

When talking about panic buying, we're talking about a situation in which negative emotions, such as fear or panic, influence us to buy products in larger quantities than we normally would. Impulse buying, on the other hand, is a situation in which you purchase a product without giving it as much thought as you would in regular circumstances. While impulse purchases can be caused by negative emotions - and, in the case of the pandemic, they were - they don't have to be. In fact, many times those are caused by positive emotions.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, though, that people bought more or took less time to decide. After all, it was the first time we were faced with such a situation. It is understandable that people were scared and wanted to prepare as best as they could. Because of that, it wasn't uncommon to encounter shortages of essential products and things that can be used to prepare meals and that wouldn't expire for a long time - perfect examples of such products would be pasta, rice, and sauces.

Some hygiene products like toilet paper, surgical masks and hand sanitisers were also often sold out, at least in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 and Stress

Significant events, such as a pandemic or natural disasters, can be a cause of an increased amount of stress for individuals, and the COVID-19 pandemic wasn't an exception. Not knowing what is going to happen next, being concerned about your loved ones and their health, or lack of job stability caused many people to experience stress more intensely than they did before the pandemic.

Long-term stress can be the reason for anxiety and/or depression, and that's what happened to many. According to a scientific brief released by the World Health Organisation (WHO), "in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%."

When it comes to the relationship between stress and consumers, there are two ways in which the consumer can respond:

  • a passive response, in which the consumer shows increased saving behaviour - so, to put it simply, a person can buy less because of stress.
  • an active response, in which the consumer develops increased spending behaviour, simply meaning that a person buys more as a result of stress.

Which one a customer develops is solely dependent on them and their individual situation. It's almost impossible to predict how one will react in such a situation.

Most Prominent Changes in Consumer Behaviour Since COVID-19

Now, while impulse and panic buying are definitely things that were characteristic for the first few months of the pandemic, they haven't become a standard. Today, most people buy only the things they need, and they put some serious thought into making a purchase - and even if they do make an impulse purchase, it most likely isn't due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, there are certain changes in consumer behaviour that are still very much present today - and we will talk about them below.

Increase in Online Shopping

The first, and probably the most noticeable thing that changed in terms of people and their shopping behaviour is the channel through which they do it. Because of the restrictions put into place by the governments of many countries which included closing down shopping centres as well as other non-essential establishments, the number of things that could be bought by going to physical stores significantly decreased, forcing people to find another way to get what they wanted.

As you might guess, most of them went the online route, and plenty of statistics confirm that assumption. In 2019, global e-commerce sales equaled $3.351 trillion. In 2020 - so in the year the pandemic started - they increased to over $4.2 trillion (an increase of over 25% when compared to the previous year), while in 2021, the sales were even higher, totaling over $4.921 trillion. At the time of writing this article, there's no data for 2022 yet, but the sales are expected to increase even further, equaling about $5.5 trillion by the end of the year.

While most industries experienced an increase in online sales, retail is probably one of the few in which it was the most visible and that people felt the most. As can be seen on the graphic below, in 2019, 13.8% of all retail sales were conducted online. In 2020, only a year later, the number increased to 17.8%.

source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/534123/e-commerce-share-of-retail-sales-worldwide/

This graph shows what the situation looked like in 2020 in terms of worldwide retail sales. Now, let's take a look at the local market, and what the situation looked like in the UK. Here we have a bit more data, so it also includes results for the year 2021.

source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/825461/proportion-of-retail-sales-made-online-great-britain-total/

In the UK the change was even more drastic, growing from 19.1% in 2019, to over 31% in 2021. That's an 11% difference achieved in less than two years. Having data from over 10 years helps better understand the impact the COVID-19 pandemic actually had. 

After all, it's not like the e-commerce industry didn't exist beforehand, or that people didn't shop online - that is not the case at all. In fact, it's quite the opposite - for the last decade, online shopping has been steadily increasing in popularity. However, the increase from year to year usually didn't exceed 2% - so, an 11% increase within just two years really puts into perspective how massive of an impact the pandemic had on consumers' shopping behaviour and the channel through which they do it. 

Why Did People Turn Online

There are a few reasons why online stores have become more popular in recent years, with the pandemic and governmental restrictions being ones that contributed the most. Here are a few more: 

  • More things to choose from - physical stores are usually restricted in terms of how much inventory they can hold. With stores that operate online, this usually isn't a problem as they have big warehouses dedicated to inventory, meaning they can offer a lot more options. 
  • Convenient - online shopping is convenient and makes purchasing new things easier, not only because of COVID-19 but in general. You can shop whenever you wish, and get the package delivered straight to your door. 
  • No location restrictions - if there's a store that you really want to buy from but if it doesn't have a physical location in your city or region, you can always order online. Most shops will be able to deliver to any location within a country. 
  • Easier comparison - when you're shopping online, it is a lot easier to compare prices of similar or the same products in different stores. In a brick-and-mortar shopping centre, you'd have to go from store to store, not to mention remembering different prices to know which one is the best. With online shopping, you can just open the websites of those stores in separate tabs, and all it will take to compare the prices is changing the tab. 
  • Lower prices - some stores tend to price items sold online slightly lower than those in stores. What's more, the internet is full of discount codes that can help you save a lot when making a purchase, which is why before you hit "send" you should check our website for a discount code - you never know, maybe you'll be in luck and you'll find a perfect promo code for your purchase. 

Changes in Purchased Product Categories

Now, while the shift from offline shopping to online shopping was almost a given considering the restrictions that were put into place by many governments, it wasn't the only one of the consumer habits that was affected due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from changing the way in which they do their shopping, consumers also changed the product categories they purchased.

To put into perspective how much some of the product categories changed during the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, let's take a look at another graphic. This one comes from the "COVID-19 and Ecommerce" survey conducted by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and NetComm Suisse e-Commerce Association in 2020.

It's important to keep in mind that the survey was conducted in one country - Brazil, to be specific. However, despite the fact that it was carried out almost 2 years ago and the results come from one country, we can assume that throughout the duration of the pandemic not much has changed and that the results would be more or less the same in other parts of the world.

source: https://unctad.org/system/files/official-document/dtlstictinf2020d1_en.pdf

Looking at the image, it isn't hard to come to some conclusions. While there are product categories that haven't changed much due to the pandemic, there are also a few that have experienced a significant transformation - both negative and positive. Let's take a look at what those are. 

First of all - tourism and travel. That shouldn't come as a surprise, though, considering that many countries have closed their borders to foreigners. The only people allowed to enter were those holding the country's passport or residence - and even if someone wanted to travel within their own country, in many cases they couldn't because of the governmental restrictions that caused hotels to close. The travel industry was almost non-existent during the pandemic, which is why it dropped from 17% to about 6%.

Another product category that changed was pharma and healthcare products. This can include many things, such as medication to alleviate the symptoms of COVID-19, vitamins to make your immune system stronger, or even surgical masks that were mandated in most countries. The percentage of active online shoppers for this category increased from 15% to over 30% within the period of data collection.

The number of people purchasing cosmetics and personal care products also increased, from 25% in 2018 to 44% in 2020. During the pandemic, people had more time to enjoy things that they didn't have time for before. Many of them took on makeup, learning how to do it and creating elaborate looks, thus the increased sales of cosmetics - especially if you consider the fact that they couldn't go to a shop like Sephora to buy them simply because it was closed. Other personal care products, like hair dyes or perfumes, also noticed increased sales because of the amount of time people had on their hands.

The last of the product categories that were more commonly purchased during the COVID-19 pandemic is food and beverages. The reasons for it aren't much different from the ones mentioned above. Most restaurants were closed, so eating out wasn't an option - that left food delivery apps like Uber Eats or Bolt Food if you wanted to eat a meal from your favourite place or making a home cooked meal. 

Sure, supermarkets remained open as they were considered to be essential stores. However, because of the limits implemented in many countries, you often had to wait an hour or more to even get inside, not counting the time you spent shopping. Not to mention that going to the store posed great health risk, as it was impossible to keep everything sanitised at all times, due to people constantly touching products, putting them back, and some refusing to wear masks.

For these reasons, many opted for online grocery shopping and home delivery.

Retail - What Is Selling?

While the fashion and accessories category didn't change at the time the survey data was collected, it doesn't mean that nothing changed within this category - it did, but the change concerned the products that were purchased. 

Since many companies introduced remote work to slow down the spread of COVID and to keep their employees safe, there was no need for them to dress up in suits or business casual as they would if they were actually going to the office. The same goes for school - since classes were online, and even if you had to show your face on camera only the upper part of your body - many stopped purchasing clothes meant for going out and instead opted for clothing that is comfortable enough to spend hours in front of the computer in. 

To make it clearer how much that's actually true, let's take a look at data collected by Square between March and October of both 2019 and 2020. 

According to their findings, sweatshirts were a definite winner, as their sales in 2020 increased 10 times when compared to 2019. Cosy sweaters were also a consumers' favourite, with the sales increasing three times. Some other products that became popular during the pandemic include: 

  • Sweatpants - while the difference is not as outstanding as in the case of sweatshirts, it is still worth mentioning. The sales of sweatpants increased by 4% compared to the previous year. 
  • Stretch pants - according to their data, the sales of stretch pants increased fivefold in 2020 when compared to 2019. While some people might think of leggings or yoga pants when hearing stretch pants, that's not the case here - in fact, both leggings and yoga pants noticed a decrease in sales of 24% and 29% respectively. 
  • Joggers - another loungewear piece that was commonly bought during the pandemic were joggers, which have noticed an increase of 32%. 
  • Pyjamas - the last clothing piece we had to mention are pyjamas. During the pandemic, many people started to wear them outside of the bedroom, often spending whole days in them and just changing from one pyjama to another in the evening. This is probably one of the reasons why pyjamas' as well as nightgowns' sales increased so much within just a year. In 2020, nightgowns noticed a 71% increase in sales when compared to 2019, while pyjamas' sales increased by 43%. 

As for the clothing articles that didn't sell well in the first year of the pandemic, an example that needs to be brought up are button-up and button-down shirts. Both of them noticed a significant decrease of 30% and 39% respectively. 

Changes in Purchased Brands

Before the pandemic many brands could count on customer loyalty, however, the pandemic changed that. Customer loyalty and brand loyalty started to decrease, and many people decided to switch brands that they would normally purchase from to something different, usually more affordable. 

That shouldn't come as a surprise though, considering how many people either lost their job completely or were unable to work for a prolonged period of time because of all the restrictions the government put into place. 

Apart from affordability, the graphic below from McKinsey shows other reasons why consumers switched brands. 

source: https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/coronavirus-leading-through-the-crisis/charting-the-path-to-the-next-normal/consumers-who-switched-brands-during-the-pandemic-most-often-cited-price-and-value

Local Over Mainstream

While this is not exactly something that could be noticed in terms of online shopping behaviour, it is still worth mentioning, as, after all, it is part of customers' new habits shaped by the pandemic. During the two years of COVID-19, more people decided to shop locally.

Steve Murrels, the CEO of Co-op - a grocery chain popular in the UK - said in an interview he gave to BBC's Today Programme that "We're finding that when lockdowns happen... the average basket size doubles, but also local deliveries are very popular." So, instead of going out to eat, or going to bigger supermarkets or hypermarkets located further (often in big shopping centres or other busy areas), consumers prefer to stay closer to their homes.

After looking at the results of a survey conducted in October of 2020 and published by Statista, it is clear that the trend is going to continue. 58% of responders declared that they purchased more things locally than they did before the pandemic. What's more, 60% declared that they are planning on purchasing locally in the future.

source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1285678/uk-local-shopping-behavior/

Key Takeaways

As far as the changes in consumers' purchasing behaviour caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are concerned, we have covered the most important things that you should remember after you finish reading this article. However, just to make sure that everything is as understandable as possible, let us give you a quick recap of what was said. 

  • COVID-19 pandemic began in late 2019, but it wasn't until 2020 that it spread to countries outside of China. The pandemic caused several industries to close either completely or almost completely. 
  • Because of the pandemic, consumer behaviour, as well as their purchasing habits have changed. 
  • The most prominent change was the increase in people shopping online. Because of the restrictions introduced in most countries, making purchases online became easier and more convenient. 
  • The second change in consumers' purchasing behaviours was the change in product categories that were most commonly purchased. Categories like travel and tourism significantly decreased, while, for example, food and beverages increased. 
  • The third change in terms of consumer behaviours was the change in the brands they purchased. Many put aside brand loyalty in favour of more affordable products. 
  • The last change we mentioned is in the increase of people shopping locally. While it isn't connected to online consumer behaviour, it was worth bringing attention to. 

The Bottom Line

There's no denying that the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the world - and while it is slowly going back to the way it was before, it will never be the same. The internet became more important than ever, with many doing their regular grocery shopping online. Remote work became a standard for many companies. More people became aware of how little it takes to get sick and started to care more about their health - something that they most likely didn't even think about before.

No matter if we are aware of it or not, many things have changed within society, and that includes consumer behaviour. More people started to shop online and changed not only the products they purchase but also the brands. 

Will the trends we noticed in terms of consumer behaviour continue? Most likely. However, they will require future research to see just how many of them actually stayed and which ones are no longer accurate. 

But considering everything we know at the moment, we can be sure of one thing - online shopping is here to stay. It's convenient, it's easy, it allows you to compare prices more easily, and can even help you save money when buying something you really want. And since we're talking about savings... Make sure to check out all the available coupons on our site. Who knows, maybe you'll find one that will be perfect for your next online shopping spree? 

Bibliography

  1. https://www.who.int/news/item/02-03-2022-covid-19-pandemic-triggers-25-increase-in-prevalence-of-anxiety-and-depression-worldwide 
  2. https://www.emarketer.com/content/worldwide-ecommerce-continues-double-digit-growth-following-pandemic-push-online 
  3. https://www.statista.com/statistics/534123/e-commerce-share-of-retail-sales-worldwide/ 
  4. https://www.statista.com/statistics/825461/proportion-of-retail-sales-made-online-great-britain-total/ 
  5. https://unctad.org/system/files/official-document/dtlstictinf2020d1_en.pdf 
  6. https://squareup.com/us/en/townsquare/homebody-trending-products 
  7. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/coronavirus-leading-through-the-crisis/charting-the-path-to-the-next-normal/consumers-who-switched-brands-during-the-pandemic-most-often-cited-price-and-value 
  8. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1285678/uk-local-shopping-behavior/
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