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One Year In Lockdown: New Shopping Behaviors Will Reshape Retail

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In the Sunday paper, there was a column about the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 lockdown written by the San Francisco Chronicle’s movie and TV critic Mick LaSalle, that was surprising in a couple of ways. First of all, the subject wasn’t about the latest movie releases – it was about lessons he’s learned living in the year of the pandemic. Secondly, the fact that a social issue was commented on by a movie critic was unusual, to say the least. But I enjoy Mick’s critiques and his style, and so I read on.

Pushing The Panic Button

Mick mentioned a couple of things that touch on subjects that the partners at RSR have written about. First on Mick’s list of learnings was, “It pays to be 40 rolls ahead. Apparently when people get scared, they start buying toilet paper (who knew?)… best thing? You’re prepared”.

We’ve all seen how the pandemic triggered mass shortages of paper products, including toilet paper and paper towels, as well as grocery bags of all things! RSR has mentioned retailers’ lack of supply chain agility using this as an example to the point where we’re tired of it. But the phenomenon pointed to a bigger issue. Last year, Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist and professor emerita at Golden Gate University observed that, “the antidote to anxiety really is control … but we kind of rounded the bend into what doesn’t make sense and what is clearly irrational – otherwise known as panic buying.” She then pointed out in the early days of the pandemic, people were panic-buying products that address a need to “protect, entertain, and connect”.

While there’s no reliable way to predict what disaster will trigger panic buying (Professor Yarrow related panic buying to the newness of a disaster, for example, people along the Gulf Coast are used to hurricanes, but no one was ready for COVID-19), it might be possible to model what will happen once the panic button is pushed. As RSR partner Paula Rosenblum said in her Retail Paradox Weekly column last week, for retailers and their trading partners, “the imperative here is ‘quick response to changing conditions’.”

Hearing It From Consumers

Taking the cue from Mick LaSalle, I wanted to highlight what consumers have learned from living in the year of the pandemic. So I asked via a social media post, and here are some of the things I learned:

During the pandemic, consumers made efforts to assert more control over what they could and got organized. One friend told me, “The ‘needs’ list has started including a lot of things that just make a specific task or system work more smoothly. Where some of those things may have been on the ‘want’ list before – now, because we spend so much more time at home we have even more cooking to do, and more dishes to do, and more laundry to do, and more of a need for our spaces to be functional – things like an extra cart or special storage containers or ways to organize bulk pantry products or the tools we regularly reach for (scissors, tape, pens, drill) are no longer a ‘nice-to-haves’ but absolutely necessary.

Planning’ is a word that came up a lot. Said one friend, “We plan our groceries a lot better, and overall, I believe our spend went down. We also have less waste. My husband likes to go to the store at 7am. I’m good with placing orders online and sitting in the pick-up zone. I think we’ll probably continue with these quicker and more simplified approaches past the pandemic.”

Another person offered this advice: “you can always find something to cook out of a well-stocked pantry. Buy the basics before you run out and stay flexible about what’s for dinner.”

Tangential to better planning is something that might make retailers shudder – frugality. One young mom told me, “we’ve saved a ton of money buying only online (groceries, school supplies, clothes, pet things). I’m much more likely to impulse buy in-store. And of course, then I have three kids with me! But definitely, we’ve been buying a higher quantity of needs vs wants during quarantine, and I think it’s mostly due to my planning a list for online shopping, vs popping into a store to see what they have.”

Some shoppers expressed a desire to support the local community. Said one, “I focused on local offerings like doing pick up meals at least once a week from our favorite joints in town. It became more about supporting our community as well as splurging. I also donated more to local causes like the local Food Bank because though we were able to continue to work and enjoy supporting our local food establishments, we knew there were many who could not.”

Another friend was able to support local suppliers and have fun doing it: “our spending went up at the beginning of quarantine. We got fresh milk delivered, community supported agriculture (CSA) boxes, beer samplers, etc. Kind of like a, ‘This is fun! Let’s try this!’”

Who Needs A Grocery Store Anyway?

Fast-moving-consumer-goods (FMCG) merchants and grocery in particular had a gang-busters year in 2020, at least in terms of top line sales. The question is, will that continue? Listening to consumers, retailers should definitely be concerned.

One item from Mick LaSalle’s list caught my attention: “I don’t really need to go grocery shopping. In my previous life, I spent a lot of time shopping. Thanks to grocery services… I won’t do that anymore – though some produce items I should probably by in person… <but> the convenience is worth the minor risk.”

That seemed to be the general sentiment that I got from my little focus group. Said one, “I use Walmart pick up. I haven’t been inside a grocery store for a year.” Another replied, “the in-person shopping ‘experience’ hasn’t been missed quite as much as I thought it would be (no stores in a year for us too!) – not saying I won’t ever go back, but I believe a few things have changed for good. Grocery pickup / delivery is definitely sticking around for us!”

Some comments seemed to indicate that it’s the inconvenience of the store, rather than saving money, that is the issue: “My monthly outgoings halved. Literally halved, although my spending … increased significantly”.

Will New Consumer Behaviors Stick?

Retailers are betting on a boomerang effect from the effects of COVID-era shopping behaviors and have given it a name: revenge shopping. The hope that pent-up demand is about to be unleashed as more and more people get vaccinated from the virus has even made it to mainstream media. But will it bring roaring prosperity back to retailers? America consumer spending represents 68% of GPD, and despite events like the recession, big weather events, social and political tensions, and the pandemic itself, the needle has barely moved since 2008. So, planners shouldn’t really be expecting consumer spending to change much.

But how consumers shop is likely to be impacted by the pandemic for years to come. The reason is simple: the two things that consumers never have enough of are time and money. The pandemic taught many shoppers how to use those two precious commodities more wisely. Businesses will have to rise to meet the new expectations that result.




Newsletter Articles March 23, 2021
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