As the COVID-19 pandemic nears its expected U.S. apex, federal to local government leaders are expanding social distancing timelines to flatten the outbreak curve. While people gird for the worst, two dynamics are shaping shoppers now and into the future, says Alison Chaltas, global president of Shopper and Retail at Ipsos. Although this pandemic is quite unique, there are already useful insights from comparing behaviors today from past crises.
“This isn’t the first time that people have stockpiled, but it’s the first time with e-commerce,” says Chaltas. With many stores closed or products sold out, people are turning online to find supplies. They’re also trying to find some semblance of normalcy and sanity in the process. “The other dynamic is the duration for stockpiling, which will ultimately forge new shopping habits and further drive people online for replenishing supplies,” Chaltas says.
More than half of people (56%) say they are trying to support local businesses and continue their day-to-day activities as much as possible, per an Ipsos COVID-19 survey.
Retailers were hoping for a sales boon from the important spring and summer seasons. But, as furloughs and layoffs extend into the summer, shoppers are shifting to survival-minded purchases. A majority of Americans believe that the COVID-19 crisis will last at least until the summer, according to an ABC-Ipsos poll. Online conversations show people complaining about shortages and trying delivery while some shoppers hoard products, says Menaka Gopinath, president of Ipsos North America SMX-Communities.
“Overall, food and grocery shopping behaviors are wide ranging, with delivery being a popular option,” she says. “People also share frustrations about shortages at their local grocers.”
Shoppers are stockpiling for longer periods
Historically, people tend to stockpile during weather or other crises that call for sheltering in place. Most stockpiling events tend to have a limited timeframe. But this pandemic is different, says Chaltas. “In coastal communities, we prepare and stockpile for a week without services,” she says. “You tell me a week, I buy a month’s worth of supplies. Now they’re telling us three months. Does that mean a year?”
Perhaps. The pandemic-sparked website howmuchtoiletpaper.com estimates that the average user has 500% more toilet paper than they need for quarantine. Now, shortages have moved from TP and cleaning supplies to beans and meat, and from grocery stores to online specialty producers.
Beth Osmund, co-owner and farmer at sustainable meat farm Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm in Ottawa, Ill., has seen an uptick in meat subscriptions since the pandemic spread in the U.S. “We’ve added or renewed 10 signups in the past two weeks,” she says. “That’s about twice what we normally see for new signups in a month. Year over year, we’ve had 20 signups compared to 10 last year in March.”
Once people have stockpiled, they’re also living differently. Essentially grounded, people are turning to projects and creature comforts to make their confines more friendly. Just over half (55%) of Americans say they have self-quarantined, according to the fourth week of the Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus Index. That’s up from 53% a week ago and 39% two weeks ago.
As a result, shoppers are shifting from emergency pantry stocking to hibernation stockpiling and nesting purchases. That’s driving sellouts of everything from box freezers to puzzles, and boosting sales of crafts and DIY hardware as people seek out creature comforts as they settle into pandemic quarantine.
How shopping will change in the future
That could drive durable behavior changes for shopping in the future. Before COVID-19, people went shopping for different reasons, says Oscar Yuan, president of Ipsos Strategy3. “All of those task-based missions I think people will get comfortable moving online,” he says. But there are other reasons that people go shopping, be it social, or to learn and explore or get ideas. That won’t go away after COVID-19. After the SARS outbreak 17 years ago in China and greater Asia, retail didn’t die, says Yuan. Instead, retailers shifted and are now about five years ahead of American retailers in omni-channel sophistication. “Yes, the landscape will change but it just means that the retailer today needs to think about how they adjust to that,” says Yuan.
For example, with grocery stores, that “get in and out” mission might move online, he says. But when people are sick of making the same recipes over months and months, he suggests that grocery stores could follow Home Depot’s lead with demonstrations on how to learn other things. “Retailers are going to have to learn that their role is much more than a place where someone procures goods,” says Yuan. “You have to figure out what people need and can’t do in person more so than what they can do online.”