There's little doubt pandemic life will permanently alter how consumers shop.
A recent study by Brightpearl, a retail business technology firm, shows just how much we’ve changed and how our newly adopted habits will reshape retail.
A Whole New World
The company surveyed 2000 American consumers in late July 2020 for its 'How We’ll Shop' report to understand how buying behavior has changed over the last year.
What they found is notable for retailers who want to decipher the trends and better serve shoppers.
Before COVID-19 took hold in the U.S., 33 percent of Americans shopped online, according to Brightpearl’s research. By July — after many states had been locked down for months — that number rose to 48 percent.
Retailers of all sizes found themselves impacted by this major shift over a short period of time.
Having an Open Mind Leads to Opportunities
While many retailers found challenges in this change, there were some positives in the upheaval, especially for small businesses.
“Consumers now have an abundance of choice and were more willing to consider new brands as they came across them [online] during lockdown”
Brands who doubled down and created interesting content pertinent to their businesses were able to capture the attention of shoppers because the audience online was hungry for new experiences, he adds.
Big operators like Amazon experienced glitches in the beginning, not always shipping products efficiently. And while consumers were understanding of delays because of the global crisis, their patience soon waned, Hook says.
Even typically reliable online retailers had delays in shipping, especially when using particular carriers. Local retailers gained sales because they could deliver locally, offer curbside pickup and buy-online pickup services that worked when shoppers didn’t want to wait.
Safety concerns provided another opportunity where small retailers could assure customers with a better experience. In contrast to big-box stores, some shoppers felt safer at local retailers who didn’t have crowds, and who acted quickly to implement safety procedures.
Online Will Stay Strong
Brightpearl’s survey finds 79% of consumers plan to buy online more frequently in the coming year.
“E-commerce operations are actually pretty complex,” says Hook. “Some who raced to attract online shoppers found they couldn’t fulfill their promises.”
Not over-promising is the lesson Hook says retailers must learn. Be up front about fulfillment challenges or delays. This is imperative for sustaining long-term business, he says, because bad reviews can seriously hurt business.
“Communication with shoppers is key. Make up for mistakes and seek out feedback from shoppers.”
What Will Shoppers Buy?
The success of retailers in the coming year — and maybe beyond — won’t be equal.
Almost a third of U.S. shoppers say they will postpone big-ticket purchases in the next 12 months, Brightpearl found.
Reduced spending on sports, concerts and activities will continue, with consumers keeping a focus on home, Hook says.
He expects gift and home decor retailers to find great opportunities in the coming year as shoppers buy smaller items for themselves and spend more
on loved ones.
Staying in touch and celebrating occasions will be more important than ever to keep relationship connections, he says.
Where will Consumers Shop?
Financial insecurity remains a factor for many households trying to weather the impact of a rocky economy, so retailers are still very much competing with Amazon and big-box stores.
“One thing which the pandemic has done is to encourage all of us to reflect and re-evaluate our purchasing habits and priorities,” says Busby, CEO of Retail Reflections.
“The real challenge for retailers, however, is to try to predict which of these new [consumer] behaviors and spending patterns will become embedded and which ones will be more ephemeral.”
Many changes to shopping made during the pandemic will likely stick around.
“Psychologists tell us it only takes about 60 days for a new action to become a lasting habit,” says Hook. “For those who’ve moved to shopping online or doing curbside pickups, the pandemic gave them plenty of time to develop new habits.”
Nostalgia could play a role in how consumers behave once they feel it’s safe to shop in stores again. But Brightpearl’s experts caution this may not be enough to bring pre-COVID-19 crowds back into the stores.
Just over 40% of shoppers say they feel they should shop in-store to help local retailers maintain their businesses, yet 66% say they still will make fewer trips to physical stores in the next 12 months.
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