Despite Pandemic, Shoppers Still Look for Deals, Preferred Brands

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Institute Research: The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Shopper Behavior

Despite Pandemic, Shoppers Still Look for Deals, Preferred Brands

By Peter Breen - 03/20/2020

Retailers and brands should think twice before abandoning all promotional activity in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, because many shoppers are still looking for deals as they stock up for an uncertain future, according to a survey conducted this week by Path to Purchase Institute.

News reports and social media conversations have focused on a retail climate that has veered toward near chaos at times, with throngs of shoppers emptying store shelves in response to increasingly dire developments surrounding the pandemic. 

The Institute’s survey identifies a more thoughtful, deliberate shopper still relying on preferred brands and retailers and still hoping to find good prices before changing their typical behavior to buy the products they need when necessary. As expected, those behavioral changes include a significant number of shoppers moving toward online ordering and out-of-store pickup options.

Fielded March 13-15, the survey was conducted among 1,001 primary household grocery shoppers in the U.S., almost half of whom (44%) say they are stocking up on cleaning supplies, medications, personal care items and food to keep themselves healthy and prepared for whatever may come next.

Taken as a whole, the survey uncovers three key takeaways about the state of shopping behavior at this point in time. They are:

1. Shoppers are still "shopping."

2. Online shopping is growing.

3. Shoppers are ready to stay loyal.

1. Shoppers are still “shopping”
Although the near-national run on both emergency-health and grocery staples seemed to suggest that consumers are blindly grabbing necessary items without any consideration, the survey suggests there’s more trip planning taking place than all those bare aisles would imply (see chart, above).

In fact, the impact of the pandemic has led even more consumers to undertake the following activities with greater frequency:

  • Make a shopping list (31%). Since this behavior was more evident among suburban/rural residents and older shoppers, it could be driven by a desire to avoid being forced to make another trip to the store for items that they might otherwise forget.
  • Look for coupons (24%). Millennials and Gen X’ers are leading the charge. Only 12% of respondents say they’re looking for deals less often than they did before.
  • Review store circulars (23%), which could aid in the aforementioned list-making and deal-seeking, as well as provide a way to …
  • Compare prices across stores (22%), with the need for bulk buys and concerns over potential gouging likely driving the change.
  • Read product reviews online (18%), which again seems to contradict the (wholly understandable) perception that shoppers are simply “panic buying.” This shift in behavior could reflect the need to purchase unfamiliar products (like face masks perhaps), find the most effective solutions (for staying germ-free) or try out new brands due to out-of-stock situations.

Just as significantly, a much smaller percentage of shoppers (13% or less) say they have ceased any of these activities. 

And while product availability likely has become far more critical to ultimate purchase decisions than almost ever before, 83% of shoppers say they’re looking for low prices and deals, including 27% who say they’re doing that more often now. Conversely, only 10% say they’re less concerned about price. This greater price sensitivity could be related to the increased level of stock-up trips taking place (see chart, above), or to heightened (and justifiable) concerns about price gouging.

One other behavioral trend that could have a significant impact on shopper engagement is meal planning: 28% of respondents said they’re now planning meals, and buying products accordingly, more than they did before the crisis began. That means 79% of shoppers (including those who already did) are heading to the store with specific ingredients in mind. (It’s probably worth noting that these results came before major cities such as New York and Chicago began to prohibit in-restaurant dining.) 

2. Online shopping is growing
Among the more commonly expected outcomes of the pandemic is a surge in grocery e-commerce, with many industry analysts predicting a true tipping point in relation to brick-and-mortar shopping as consumers discover the relative ease (not to mention physical safety) of online shopping options.

EIQ’s survey results support this theory, beginning with the increase in online-conducive pre-shopping behaviors such as meal planning, price comparing and reading product reviews that was discussed earlier.

But it’s reflected even more by the substantial increase in online grocery buying among respondents, 21% of whom said they’re now shopping online because of the pandemic — joining the 26% who already were (see chart above). Assuming the pandemic continues to spread and "shelter in place" rules proliferate, it will be interesting to see how many of the 57% of shoppers who still aren’t buying groceries online will do so.

Drilling down to specific e-commerce activities, relatively equal numbers of shoppers say they're buying food online to pick up in the store (19%), to use curbside pickup (18%) or for home delivery (18%). All of those options help them avoid crowded aisles, long checkout (or entry) lines, and possible contamination to some degree. 

Adoption levels for online buying were roughly the same for personal care and household supplies, as well as for OTC and prescription medications. One possible check on more widespread adoption might be the fact that only 16% of shoppers say they have a high level of trust in the ability of retailers or delivery personnel to be sanitary and safely handle orders during preparation and delivery.

Retailers themselves might very well help fuel greater adoption of home delivery, since a number of chains in recent weeks have dropped the service charges often associated with low-purchase online orders. The level of “shelter in place” guidelines set by municipalities, as well as the length of the COVID-19 outbreak, could ultimately have a major impact as well.

An additional finding that seems to belie the “gold rush” mentality of recent shopping behavior is the number of shoppers who say they want to continue visiting their preferred stores to buy their favorite brands. 

The current climate has undoubtedly led many consumers to alter their typical destinations for grocery purchases: Shoppers say they’ve shifted trips from their typical channel (most commonly supermarkets or mass merchants) to a different one in relatively equal measures — between 15% and 21% — across all channels. For the moment at least, drugstores have picked up as many grocery trips as online retailers, presumably because of the established status as a destination for health and wellness needs.

However, 56% of respondents say they’re visiting the stores they always shop, while another 39% are only heading to other stores to buy something specific that they need. Not surprisingly, greater product availability was the reason most often given for the switch (cited by 58%). Other motivations were a more convenient location (34%), which might imply a desire to shorten trip lengths; a lack of the purchase limits that many chains have implemented to fend off hoarding (23%); better prices (20%): and the availability of products they don’t normally buy (18%), which likely reflects unique needs related directly to the outbreak.

On the product side, 34% of respondents who’ve shopped at a different store since the crisis began said they did so in order to buy their preferred brands — again suggesting that the “whatever is on the shelf” mentality that has seemingly driven recent purchase behavior might be slightly misleading.

Indeed, 22% of shoppers remain steadfast in their desire to “only buy my preferred brands.” While 58% expressed a readiness to buy another brand if their favorite isn’t available, only 21% said they’ll buy “any brand to get the items I need.”

Asked which retailer they trust to provide the products and services they need during the crisis, 18% of shoppers named Walmart. Target and Amazon were each identified by 6%; Kroger and Costco were cited by three. In total, 67 different retailers were named.

On the product side, only three of the 114 brands named as being trusted to provide what respondents need received a significant number of mentions: Lysol (at 6%), followed by Clorox (3%) and Purell (1%).

Collectively, these results suggest that, despite the upheaval in behavior caused by the pandemic, retailers and brands still have an opportunity to retain loyalty if they’re able to stay ahead of changing consumer demand and meet the needs of shoppers confronting an uncertain future — obviously, a task that’s far easier said than done in these exceptionally difficult times.

 

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