June 3, 2020

Understanding Global Consumer Behavior Shifts Due to COVID-19

By Cassandra Shaffer / Global Ecommerce

COVID-19 has had a fairly dramatic effect on ecommerce globally as sellers look to tackle trends and figure out how to emerge on top. At the end of the day, the customer is always right—so we’ve broken down how COVID-19 is affecting global consumer behavior for you, beyond the obvious “people are buying masks and disinfectant,” and “people are grocery shopping online more” trends.

Consumers are staying home—which means less travel and takeout.

It comes as no surprise that the travel industry is experiencing the most adverse effects. In a white paper published March 16, 2020, SimilarWeb reported Hong Kong and Italy travel platforms had fared the worst, and as more countries in the EU and states in the U.S. impose travel restrictions there will likely be negative effects there as well. For a while, consumers searching for a bargain did continue to drive traffic to U.S. travel sites, but that didn’t last long.

According to its analysis, SimilarWeb added that spikes in travel site traffic could also be attributed to consumers making cancellations, looking for refunds, and trying to get information about current travel restrictions and guidelines. As for travel accessories—there’s been over a 50% decrease in that category.

It seems like there’s no end in sight for the coronavirus pandemic, and when it does end, it’s unlikely consumers will jump back into old behaviors, such as traveling internationally, according to a report by McKinsey & Company.

Online grocery shopping (we said we wouldn’t focus on it, not that we wouldn’t mention it) has seen exponential growth over the past few months, but McKinsey & Company’s analysis found that globally, consumers have mixed feelings as to whether or not they’ll continue to buy groceries online in the future.

Of course, the pandemic didn’t necessarily affect how we feel about cooking. In the U.S. and the U.K., SimilarWeb reported that food delivery continued to trend upward—however, the supply to meet the demand for takeout could affect that trend as restaurants face the difficult decision of whether or not to stay open. Chain restaurants that traditionally have made delivery a part of their model, such as pizza places, will likely be the big winners here.

The “new essentials”

The most interesting consumer trend to arise out of this “new normal” is the creation of a “new essentials” category, which includes things like toys and hobbies, health and beauty, fitness, and housewares. Specific categories that saw an increase in purchases during social distancing, according to a report from Gray Falkon, include: pets (35%), home and garden (52%), clothing and accessories (70%), baby products (29%), health and personal care (47%), and beauty products (30%). This trend is taking root in the U.S., U.K., China, and much of Europe.

Besides increases in purchases of shelf-stable goods (pasta to the rescue), there’s been a nearly 500% increase in purchases in the medical category. On the flip side, consumers are purchasing fewer electronics and appliances, and luxury goods (like fancy handbags, not the pricey yoga pants everyone is living in right now) are facing a loss of potentially $10 billion just this year.

“Essentially, consumers are buying anything that makes them more comfortable at home,” says Michelle Thompson, Pattern Marketplace Manager. “That being said, consumers are less focused on frivolous and unnecessary purchases, and more concerned with purchasing necessities.”

So, pasta = necessary, but Versace = unnecessary. You just can’t eat couture.

Reduced optimism, spending, and income

It comes as no surprise that most consumers in countries affected by COVID-19 are feeling less optimistic about the future. Most expect to have a decrease in income, which of course leads to a decrease in overall spending (see ya later, “frivolous and unnecessary purchases”). At least, that’s been the case across the Americas and most of Europe—McKinsey & Co. reported that China and India actually saw an increase in optimism in mid-March.

Most countries, excepting again India and China, expected to see a decrease in income, with Brazil and South America consumers leading the way with over 60% of consumers expecting a decrease in income. While this has led to consumers globally spending less on unnecessary items and more on the “new essentials,” China bucked the trend again, seeing consumers buy more than just basic items. This can likely be attributed to the fact that the virus seemed to impact China first—meaning China is ahead of the curve when it comes to dealing with the pandemic and its effects.

The “new consumer”

Not to be overdramatic, but the world as we know it has changed forever—so, naturally, consumer behavior has changed forever as well. Consumers have found new ways to work, learn, entertain themselves, spend time with others, and, most importantly for us in the ecommerce world, new ways to shop.

“Things people used to buy in stores, they’ll now buy online,” Thompson said. “For example, there are things I used to never buy online, like clothes. However, I needed a pair of shorts. I took the leap and finally bought myself clothes online, and will definitely do it again!”

Thompson said she realized just how easy it is to buy clothes online, and that returns are equally as easy, if not easier than in-store returns. Other people are realizing this as well, she added.

“Ecommerce has already seen huge gains in categories such as electronics, fashion, etc.,” Thompson said. “However, I can see categories such as everyday essentials and grocery seeing larger gains post-pandemic, now that people have experienced the ease of shopping online.”

McKinsey & Co. reported that curbside pickup from restaurants has grown in popularity in the U.S. and Germany, and more grocery stores in the U.S., UK, Spain, and Italy are experimenting with curbside pickup as well.

“People are becoming more adapted to staying at home and will become more and more reliant on ecommerce and delivery service,” Thompson said. “I see a slow return to brick and mortar stores.”

The lack of “frivolous spending” will probably also continue post-pandemic, Thompson said, as the economy rebounds but also as part of a shift in consumer preference.

Another trend to be aware of when it comes to consumers is the emergence of social selling. This trend began pre-pandemic, but as consumers are spending more time online and on social media, brands are going to have to get on board with it, Thompson advised.

“I can absolutely see more and more consumers purchasing on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, as this is where they’re spending more time,” she said.

Wondering how you can appeal to this “new consumer” or how to navigate social selling? Contact our experts here at Pattern by filling out the form below.

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