Has the pandemic changed shopping behaviors forever?

Photo: Getty Images/FG Trade
Jul 07, 2020
George Anderson

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?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"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."

Join the Discussion!

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

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
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

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.

Mohamed Amer
COVID-19 has created a global human laboratory called “shopping behavior” with unprecedented and head-spinning phase changes. In real-time, we are experiencing the effects of viral epidemiology, government policies, scientific and technological advances, social relations, and retailers’ strategies and communications. It is impossible to expect the future to be a continuation of our past trajectory. Online retailing’s rate of change growth is spectacular. The physical store model, as anchors for the social shopping experience, has never been weaker. Technology, in every sense, permeates all aspects of the business and operations, news of vaccine breakthroughs send financial markets to the moon. Psychologically, we seek certainty and stability, yet that inventory is flashing red. Companies will begin reporting second-quarter results next week. That will give an early indicator of future consumer mood and sentiment. Retailing trends are collapsing into a single overarching trend: safety. That umbrella will include physical, epidemiological, value, convenience, accessibility, organic, and sustainable. All those become the new phase of experiential retail that fulfills the lower rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Retailing is essential… Read more »
Andrew Blatherwick
It would be very surprising if people had not been affected by their experience over the past three to four months. It would take a great optimist to think that the world will return to normal and they can go about their life in the same way as before. Some of these changes will be small and some may evaporate over time, but changes will remain. From the study, two points stand out for me. People are looking to shop more locally and there is an increased sense of community are closely aligned and could make a difference for the long term. If we then add people wanting to shop where they have a high level of trust this could also play to the same agenda. The old direction of travel that we are one world and movement of people goods and cultures is speeding up has certainly been put on hold, for how long it is difficult to say. The trend will be changed forever and more local sourcing, shopping and loyalty to something… Read more »
Richard J. George, Ph.D.

The new normal will be anything but normal. Going forward, many of the shopping behaviors adopted during COVID-19 will endure. The key for retailers is to be sensitive to the emerging concerns, particularly affordability and planet first. This is a terrific opportunity to leverage their crash course in online retailing into an integrated shopping strategy for post COVID-19.

Lisa Goller

I always wondered why my dad was so frugal. Now I get it.

Born in 1938 and forced to emigrate from eastern Europe during the war, he was raised in a family that struggled at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. By necessity, they learned how to live on less because their focus was to survive rather than thrive.

Similarly, our collective needs became simpler this year. Within four months, the pandemic has profoundly changed our purchasing habits for the long term.

Here’s how:

  • Health and safety are paramount: We now arrive at stores armed with masks, disinfectant wipes and contactless pay;
  • Digital everything: E-commerce catapulted into necessity status for quarantined consumers and our online accounts prepare us for future lockdowns;
  • Shrewd shopping: Beyond grocery and pharmacy essentials, our desire for most nice-to-have products and services has evaporated. The ambiguous duration of the pandemic and job insecurity make us more mindful of our purchases and likely to ask, “How important is it?”
Kathleen Fischer

It is probably a little early to identify how purchasing behaviors will change since we don’t know how long the current pandemic will last and what additional challenges we may face over the next month, 6 months, year, or longer related to it. Certainly, behaviors will change but in many cases, it may just be an acceleration of trends that consumers were already embracing.

Cathy Hotka

America’s unique inability to contain COVID-19 means that shopping will be disrupted for quite some time. Retailers who can make customers feel safe, and who can provide numerous options for pickup, will do best in this very strange environment.

Phil Rubin
1 month 8 days ago

There is no doubt that consumer shopping behaviors have changed and whether it is for the “long-term” depends on how that is defined. The extent of how lives have been disrupted, lost and impacted is not short-term, as much as some people want/hope that to be the case. So if you define long-term as in the next 3-5 years, it’s hard to see there being no residual impact, especially with the social unrest on the heels of the pandemic (“heels” might be optimistic, as I’m writing this in Georgia). Over 5-10 years it’s an entirely different question.

Some of the changes that were catalyzed by COVID-19 were already underway. Some are going to be blunted in some categories due to the economic damage that will be lasting for many over the long-term.

Shep Hyken

The pandemic threw us into the future. More curb-side pickup, delivery and online experiences became the norm in the past few months. We cut three to five years off the experience curve. The convenience of these methods for the consumer is so easy that many will make this type of purchasing a larger percentage of their shopping behavior. My suggestion for retailers and brands … get used to it. Much of this is here to stay.

Ken Morris

This is an interesting question and I believe it is and will be an age-specific response. Generally my thought is that the older population (those 40 years old and up) will have their purchasing behavior changed forever. Folks 16-39 years old will be less affected as they will exhibit behaviors that are similar to what they are now doing which seems to be more open to the heard immunity concept and in my opinion less likely to be affected forever. Younger children 1-15 years old will embrace the values of their parents and reflect a behavior that is changed forever. Retailers as indicated by Cambridge Retail Advisors COVID-19 Impact Study believe that retail and dining will be changed forever.

Joe Skorupa

I believe the word “essential” has been permanently added to our vocabulary and the implications are profound. When I see “mask refuseniks” in videos screaming in Costco after being denied service, I hear them saying they have a right as citizens to shop there anyway they want as if Costco (and other stores) are an essential part of their lives. Retailers should adopt “essential” as a business model, especially brick and mortar retailers. Others, such as clothing, fashion and luxury, should focus on convenience, service and online.

Ed Rosenbaum

It is too early in the process to know how we will act coming through the pandemic. My guess is previous habits will change. There will be less shopping and more “get what we need and get out.” How long that lasts will depend on the success of the vaccine, once we get it. The older population will be skeptical about lingering in stores looking for that illusive bargain. The younger shoppers will probably go back to that invincibility belief and shop as before.

Ananda Chakravarty
The pandemic isn’t the Great Depression. It’s not even close to the 10 years of a failed banking system, millions of homeless living in shantytowns, $1 trillion (in today’s dollars) stripped from our economy, and one out of four without a job. People are still reluctant to change. Behaviors are ingrained over long periods of time and it takes traumatic events to get people to change them. Short term – yes people will shift behaviors for now. Long term – the pandemic will need to be more traumatic (though I’m hoping it will not be). The study’s results showing that only 30 percent of affordability is affected and even less for other factors saying they’re changing is notable. The hope is a return to “normal” – which means a new normal has not yet been defined. Brands and retailers that track customer behavior will adjust processes (and tech) to match. Those that don’t will be maintaining the status quo – losing current business that will translate into a competitive disadvantage, even if long term pandemic… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson

One key point we’ve all seen is that those who formerly never or rarely ordered online have found that it is generally simple to do, so that will not go away anytime soon.

Craig Sundstrom

It’s difficult to translate the findings into predictions, since the percentages have to be multiplied by 53 percent – the group the percentages actually applies to – and THEN added to the corresponding groups who want to “get to normal” (and whose preferences aren’t stated).

Then again, maybe I should just answer the actual question: at this point we just don’t know; the Depression lasted a loooong time – four to 11 years, depending on who and where you were – with very little in the way of backstops against catastrophe that we have (and take for granted) presently. That having been said, the pandemic has impacted things in different ways – more broadly and much more rapidly – so one can’t just say “it’s shorter” and be done with it. I think a lot of key institutions are reaching a tipping point, and if things don’t recover soon we’ll start to see systematic failure(s). So at that point, consumer behaviors will change… and probably not in a good way.

Paco Underhill

Many of the trends that were already in play have either morphed or been accelerated. Convenience + economy meets fear and caution. The pressure of time: how long are you willing to stand in line – whether to shop or to vote? Local and global/national are in major conflict – Connecticut versus Texas. The conflict between that haves and have nots. The choice of where we live – the micro-environment of the gated community, versus the city housing project. How will school work in a post-pandemic world, and what will be the effect on working women? And in turn how will that affect consumption? Yes Alice, the world has changed.

Kenneth Leung

Forever is a big word. I think it is too early to tell because a lot of the current behavior is forced (not eating out, less visits to bars, getting everything delivered) because of COVID-19-driven shelter-in-place orders. Once the restrictions are lifted and the cure/vaccine is found, it is likely you will see certain behavior reversed. We also have lower spending with higher unemployment with certain sectors like travel not rebounding for at least one year. For every person that loves full time working from home, there are people who can’t wait to return to the office to get out of the house.

Ricardo Belmar
The five behaviors evaluated in the survey are more related than they are not. While it is still too early to tell what the true long-term impact on shopping behaviors will be, it seems pretty clear that affordability and health are going to go hand in hand for most consumers for the foreseeable future. Add convenience to that list and you have the shopper trifecta for likely the next year. That said, there is really one takeaway every retailer needs to understand from what we have experienced so far in this pandemic – agility to change in an instant. For some, that meant adopting BOPIS and curbside pickup, for others it meant beefing up their online e-commerce presence. Yes, most trends we are seeing now existed before the pandemic hit – they are being significantly accelerated now. However, as many have pointed out – consumers tend to say they will do one thing, and ultimately they do something else. The point is retailers need to be prepared to change direction as consumer sentiment changes and… Read more »
"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."

Take Our Instant Poll

Which of the five consumer segments identified in EY’s research most closely reflects your personal view?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...