When the pandemic is over, will consumers and retailers be different?

shopping habit during CoronavirusCoronavirus: Retailers will need to find ‘new ways’ to attract consumers after the pandemic says Senior Lecturer in Marketing Dr Eleonora Pantano.

On 16 April I was interviewed by the Daily Express to give my opinion on the current and future state of the retail sector.

At the time of writing, the COVID-19 pandemic is global. The world has not experienced such severe restrictions on the freedom of individuals since WWII. Indeed, many countries such as the UK have adopted lockdown strategies including containment measures that severely limit the possibilities for people to leave their homes. Specifically, the Government has encouraged consumers to stay at home as much as possible, and to maintain social distancing of 2 metres when outside the home

These measures have been set in the hope of reducing death tolls, but with substantial negative consequences for the retail sector. For instance, consumers have been forced to shop differently, using grocery shops much closer to home or switching to online shopping to limit their journeys.

A month into these measures we can see consumers have adapted their shopping behaviours,  adopting new shopping routines that tend to occur subconsciously. For example, in the past someone may have stopped off at a grocery shop on their route home after finishing work on a Friday afternoon, but now, with the move to working from home, it’s no longer convenient to shop there. This person may have moved towards online shopping, preferring to order on a Monday (rather than on Friday), making online purchases of items such as fresh milk, vegetables and alcohol that they would usually buy in local shops.

When the pandemic is over, how will we buy? We are so used to respecting social distancing that we might continue to stick to this in the future. Similarly, we are so used to buying online – shopping comfortably whilst lying on the sofa, receiving goods directly to our home (including the heavy stuff we used to carry on our own), at our most convenient time – that maybe we won’t want to change.

Finally, we have a heightened awareness of the risk of contagion through contact with others or with  surfaces, so there’s a chance we will still be afraid of these risks when the pandemic is over. Conversely, shopping centres were previously considered a place for social activities, but after a long period of social distancing will we still want to go to a shopping centre to meet people?

Therefore, when the pandemic is over, some of our new consumer habits will persist. We will have different needs and expectations that retailers will have to satisfy. Consequently, retailers will need to understand how shopping behaviour has changed, and how to respond accordingly, by developing new business models. This is my current research topic, which aims to help retailers and policy makers deal with the emergency, and the aftermath.

What will be the first thing that you want to buy when the pandemic is over?