Has the pandemic changed shopping behaviors forever?

Photo: Getty Images/FG Trade
Jul 07, 2020

It’s been said that people who came out of America’s Great Depression were forever changed by the experience and that it affected their attitudes until the end of their days. The experience of living through the novel coronavirus pandemic appears to be having a similarly profound effect on people today.

New research of global consumers by EY found that half believe that the way they live their lives will be significantly changed for the long-term as a result of the virus disrupting the worlds they knew before.

While 40 percent just want to “get to normal,” 53 percent say their experiences have led them to reevaluate their personal values and how they approach their lives.

EY has identified five key consumer segments with new or intensified attitudes as a result of living through the pandemic:

Affordability first: Thirty percent of people are focused on living within their financial means. These individuals are the most pessimistic when it comes to their expectations of their country recovering from the pandemic and the effects it will have on their incomes.

Health first: Twenty-six percent prefer to buy and use products they trust to be safe and minimize risks. Fifty-seven percent say they are now paying greater attention to how healthy the items they buy are for them.

Planet first: Seventeen percent are willing to pay higher prices for ethically sourced and sustainable items. These consumers are most likely to switch the products and brands they buy. Fifty-nine percent plan to shop more locally going forward.

Society first: Sixteen percent believe that we are in this together and should collectively engage in activities that work towards the greater good. Seventy-three percent of these people are prepared to make changes in their lives to benefit society and prefer to buy from organizations that reflect that same attitude.

Experience first: Eleven percent of consumers are not thinking about the long- or even medium-term. For them, it’s about living in the moment. Two-thirds of this group feel entirely comfortable about shopping in public as stores and malls reopen. People in this segment are least concerned about their health or finances.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think that a large percentage of consumers will have their purchasing behavior shaped for the long-term as a result of living through the COVID-19 pandemic? What do you expect to be the effect on retailers and brands?

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"Habits developed during the Great Depression and during WW2 had roughly 20 years to take shape, while we are less than half a year into the COVID era."

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38 Comments on "Has the pandemic changed shopping behaviors forever?"

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Bob Phibbs

From what I have seen from my clients we are on the cusp of a new hedonism where price is not the determining factor. What people say and what they do are often not aligned. It is simply too early to read the tea leaves.

David Naumann
David Naumann
Marketing Strategy Lead - Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon
1 year 11 months ago

I would add another key consumer segment to the group — convenience first. A lot of consumers have learned that “essential stores” like mega stores Walmart and Target offer the convenience of a one stop shop for most of the items on their shopping list. In times of need, some categories, like apparel, are good enough at these stores. “Convenience First” consumers have a renewed interest in one-stop shopping.

Bob Amster

The experience with the threat of the pandemic and the ensuing creativity of many industries, including retail, to compensate for the access and pleasures lost as a result, will have lead consumers to adopt new behaviors, in shopping and in living. Internet buying, ordering and communication will have increased permanently. Curbside pick-up and home delivery are here to stay, in a refined mode. Business travel will permanently decline. Emphasis on service will have been imposed on the retail industry. The drive-in movie may be back….

Dr. Stephen Needel

I think the desire to return to normal will overwhelm most changes we are seeing in purchasing. That said, economics will play a big part — if you’re out of work, you’re likely spending less. But I don’t think we’ll see a big shift in brand shares — except that store brands will pick up a little, because they always do following a recession.

Ken Lonyai

Surveys are always very tentative for a lot of reasons, so their results must always be taken with a grain of salt.

It’s far too early to judge lasting effects in a post COVID-19 world. No one knows when we’ll be past it or even if we’ll be past it, so the effects aren’t yet predictable. If there’s a quick and permanent end and an economic recovery occurs in a few years, resultant behaviors will be very different than if the current situation is prolonged and/or reoccurs annually and an economic recovery is long, like America’s Great Depression. People are already dropping social distancing and mask-wearing rules, so future modified personal behavior is quite unpredictable, despite survey claims.

Lee Peterson

We just fielded a study that showed that only 47% of consumers will go back to stores as a primary way of shopping (vs e-com/home delivery/BOPIS). So yeah, the decrease in footfalls steadily sliding down just fell off a cliff. I know most of you don’t like to hear this, but there’s going to be WAY fewer physical locations out there in a very rapid stroke going forward: too many forces against the ’90s style of shopping to even begin to think that the old adage of having more stores will increase your stock price. The consumer is saying, “smaller (total size), better (all around).” Look for the “better” element to drive growth and stock prices for the foreseeable future.

Michael Terpkosh

Too early to tell. The world is just over six months into this pandemic and any/all survey results and predictions are too premature. I don’t disagree there will be consumer behavior changes, but these could take months to years to truly recognize and understand. The retailers’ and brands’ strategic goals have not changed … keep your eye on consumer trends, needs and wants. When you recognize an opportunity, act quickly and stay nimble.

Suresh Chaganti

No surprise that affordability is highest on people’s mind.

The attitudes of people directly impacted by COVID-19 may have changed for ever — health, job loss etc — about 20% of the population may have changed substantially. Others may not change as much in terms of core attitudes.

I see one of the key reasons is Fed’s willingness to pump in money. Compared to the Great Depression, oil crises and Great Recession, the US government has been much quicker in cutting the bureaucracy to do PPP, EIDL loans, and extended unemployment assistance.

Joel Rubinson

While “permanent” is hard to assess, I think there are some long lasting/multi-year affects that can be predicted. We have accelerated online and home delivery adoption. Social distancing, masks, and one way lanes will continue for some time. Also, the retailer lineup is changing. Some iconic and many smaller retailers are going out of business and that leads to a cascading of effects in terms of malls and the ecosystem around malls (e.g. Starbucks, QSR).

I also worry about vibrant main streets and towns, defined by feeling alive in the downtown village. If enough businesses go under, the main streets become ghost towns. Many smaller towns have gone through their tough times and renaissance so “permanent” is hard to assess, but these are certainly multi-year challenges.

Brandon Rael

As with any times of crisis, consumers and businesses have historically adapted, evolved, changed their behaviors, and have shown significant resilience to a new way of life. How we shop, engage with others, educate our children, work, stay healthy and fit, travel has been impacted by the pandemic, and have resulted in many more considerations that we didn’t’ face previously.

Not surprisingly, most consumers and businesses have adapted to the very changing normal. The great acceleration sparked by COVID-19 has sped up trends that were already in motion. Including the proliferation of digital commerce, flexible fulfillment options, cashless/touchless commerce, assortment optimization, enhanced in-store services, and subscription services for health, beauty, hygiene, and essential products.

The situation is very fluid and changing by the day. It will take months if not years to assess how things are changing.

Nikki Baird

I think it is a mistake to build lasting plans around lasting consumer behavior shifts. The one thing retailers and brands should take away from the pandemic is not specific customer changes, but the fact that customer needs and expectations can change at a moment’s notice. The retailers who will win aren’t those that make “permanent” decisions and investments about “permanent” consumer shifts. The retailers who win the future will do so by building organizations that can keep up with these rapid shifts over the long term.

Zel Bianco

Yes and no. It depends on the category. Many will continue to have groceries delivered until they get a few orders that are not up to their expectations — the produce was lousy or the chicken was not what they expected, etc. Some will want to choose exactly what they want. Apparel may also be a category that many will be happy to continue to order if they are among those that have either been pleased with their experience during Covid. Others may be eager to return to how they shopped before, especially as they may have become frustrated with returns. The truth is that it remains to be seen.

Paula Rosenblum

Whether Boomers or Gen X see a permanent shift in behavior or not, Millennials and Gen Z surely will have a different way of shopping and thinking.

Many of the things you cite were already on their list, but affordability has moved to the top of the charts. We are witnessing the end of an era, I think, and consumers will be more frugal than at any time since the Great Depression. And then there’s the matter of “putting Humpty back together again” once we start to get out the other side of the virus. Clearly things are going to have to change.

I worry most about the luxury segment which I thought was ripe for a fall in the first place.

The next few years are going to be wild.


Consumer behaviors have and will continue to be shaped as result of the pandemic. Brands and retailers that are proactive with respect to the health of their consumers and associates are creating brand loyalty. What would you prefer: “I care about your health and we are taking the necessary measures to insure that you are safe” vs. the alternative?

Steve Dennis
The simple answer is this: nobody knows. As I talk about in my new book (finished before the novel Coronavirus was on the radar screen for the population at large), we are living in a brave new world where V.U.C.A. is an important framework. Pre-Covid the world was becoming increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. The pandemic has only served to amplify this. By far the big variable is when and if we get a highly effective, widely adopted vaccine with minimal side effects. Under this scenario, while it is a reasonable some people might still be somewhat more cautious, there is no fundamental reason to believe we don’t revert back to similar shopping patterns. This would be most akin to how we have lived to live with the flu (whether we should take the flu more seriously is another matter entirely). Of course, no one knows with any real certainty the timing of such a vaccine and the degree to which its efficacy might fundamentally change the health and economic outcomes. And of course,… Read more »
David Weinand

I believe that in certain segments, the acceleration of e-commerce and contactless options have altered behaviors in the long term. In addition, for most outside of the top 3-5% of earners, there will be a re-evaluation of what is important to spend on. Retailers and brands will have to know their customers’ true motivations even more and will need to invest accordingly and change processes to adapt.

Ken Cassar

To answer the question of whether COVID-19 will change consumers’ behavior in the long run will depend heavily on how the course of the pandemic plays out. If COVID disappeared as a threat by Fall or Winter, I think that consumers would pretty quickly bounce back to old behaviors (as evidenced by crowded bars of unmasked revelers in states that allowed it). Habits developed during the Great Depression and during WW2 had roughly 20 years to take shape, while we are less than half a year into the COVID era.

Neil Saunders
All of the behaviors identified by EY were already present before the coronavirus hit and, as such, have been impacting retail for quite a long time. While the pandemic may have intensified some of these traits, I don’t see it as having created them. I am sure that there will be longer-term shifts in behaviors because of the period we are now in, however, they will be blended with existing trends and some new non-pandemic related changes. I am also very skeptical of predictions of consumer change based solely on survey data. What consumers say they will do — especially in the midst of a crisis — is not necessarily what they will do at the other end of it. Admittedly it is very hard to make predictions but a more blended approach using consumer data, actual retail sales data, qualitative observations, references to history and so forth is needed to come up with a more balanced opinion. And even then it is only an opinion as, in truth, none of us really knows what… Read more »
Jeff Sward

My guess is that the “health first” group grows in size over the short term. The news coming out of the southern states is pretty alarming. The rush back to normal turns out to have been ill-advised. For the foreseeable future, it looks like less people making less visits to the mall and spending less time at the mall on those visits. BOPIS now table stakes. Not so easy for many malls. Better conversion rates now more important than ever for retailers. The shift to ecomm more real than ever. That may save the sale, but “free” shipping and returns deeply imperils the profitability of the business.

Peter Charness

In a word — yes, shopper demands for convenience went from a 3 year road map to a 3 month necessity. Delivery, curbside, in-store — we want it all and retailers need to be capable of accommodating. Some COVID-influenced shoppers will not frequent stores again (occasional visitors) and will want the full online to doorstep experience. Some will return to stores some of the time so expect a mixed bag of preferences depending on the immediacy of the need for that product. Retailers are going to have to figure out how to accommodate the many moods of their customers AND be profitable — no small task.

Jeff Weidauer

The long-term impact of the pandemic will be determined by the length of the shutdown. The current crisis isn’t likely to go on for a decade or more like the Great Depression. If a vaccine is created within a year it’s possible that behaviors will rebound to something close to pre-crisis. Certainly there are fundamental changes taking place now depending on one’s personal experience, but on average long-term behaviors will largely revert to pre-pandemic.