Path to Purchase Now: Understanding the Post-Pandemic Shopper

Institute research identifies key areas to watch as the ‘new’ path to purchase takes shape


Before March 2020, reading a sentence containing the words “contactless delivery,” “social distancing” or “shelter in place” would have sent many people to Google for clarification. But a new vocabulary is just one of the many effects COVID-19 has contributed to daily life.

All of these new terms keep the dictionary fresh and, just as our language is evolving, consumer packaged goods marketers and retailers must also adapt as they try to restore their operations to pre-pandemic activity. States are reopening, lifestyle restrictions are loosening, and more restaurants, stores and public venues are again proclaiming, “Open for business.”

The critical question, of course, is whether shoppers who for months have been forced to adopt new methods of finding and buying products – not to mention embrace new sanitary practices – actually want to revert to their old habits, or if they’re perfectly content with the “new normal” that has replaced them.

Proprietary research conducted in April by the Path to Purchase Institute sought to answer that question by asking just over 1,000 shoppers how they currently were making purchases, what factors were driving their purchase decisions and, most importantly, which newly adopted shopping behaviors they expect to permanently adopt once the pandemic ends.

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“It’s a balance between the emotional versus the functional journey on the path to purchase right now,” said Laura Nicklin, vice president of research, insights and innovation for the Institute. “Everybody’s behaving differently.”

“Essential” is another term that’s been used ubiquitously during the pandemic, most often applied to the first responders, healthcare workers and, yes, retail employees who kept working tirelessly as many other occupations were sent home to shelter in place. But it also applies to the purchases that many shoppers made to keep themselves feeling safe and secure, especially in the early weeks of the pandemic.

Those who lived through it will likely never forget the “Great Toilet Paper Rush of 2020,” and paper products were cited most often as “essential” purchases by the shoppers surveyed. However, the category fell behind bottled water, prescription medications and even dairy products when shoppers were asked to select their “most essential” purchase during the pandemic.

While most respondents said they were able to find the essential product they needed at the first store they visited, those who didn’t reported visiting an average of four stores (either online or in person) to complete the mission.


And while online shopping has certainly spiked in recent months (see chart at top), a majority of these “essential” buys still occurred in brick-and-mortar stores (see chart above), ranging from the 69% of purchases made through drugstores to the 97% made through dollar stores (which, as a channel, haven’t made heavy in-roads into e-commerce).

Among the reasons for making the physical trip despite the increased hassles and restrictions involved were the need to buy something for immediate consumption (cited by 33% of shoppers), force of habit (“always buy that item in the store,” by 29%) and a preference for viewing the product selection (26%).

While the Institute’s study provides numerous other insights into the current activities and future expectations of U.S. shoppers, it also uncovered six key behavioral shifts that brands and retailers should watch closely in the coming months: brand loyalty, channel switching, trip planning, meal preparation, dwell times and, most obviously, online grocery shopping. Each of these shifts could present potential challenges – or significant opportunities, depending on your point of view – in terms of shopper retention, marketing strategy and sales growth as the nation emerges from the crisis.

Consumer perception is another major consideration: Brands and retailers perceived as having done the best job in meeting new demands will likely be the winners, while those who came across as unbending or resistant to change are possibly facing long-lasting negative repercussions.

Naturally, none of the aforementioned shifts can be evaluated in a vacuum. Instead, they overlap and align to deliver a potentially perfect storm of emerging shopper trends. Brand loyalty affects channel preferences and trip planning influences online purchasing, for example. Nonetheless, here are some of the implications for each:

Shoppers Haven’t Always Stayed Loyal

It should be comforting news to product manufacturers that 72% of shoppers remained loyal during the pandemic and bought their preferred brand when seeking essential items. That’s an uplifting percentage given the amount of emergency trips and near-obsessive pantry loading that took place in the early stages of the crisis.

Still, the fact that 28% of shoppers switched to an alternative brand (of which 30% moved to private label) is a bit concerning, especially since 20% of that group say they were “extremely satisfied” with the alternative and 18% will “definitely” buy that brand again. Those numbers suggest that brands should maintain a strong presence in the marketplace rather than scaling back the marketing plan (as some did out of sensitivity to the social climate). For some, there could be a fair amount of lost share to win back.

Shoppers Are Switching Traditional Channels, Too

Retailers, too, are likely facing some loyalty challenges. Although the significant shift toward online grocery shopping has justifiably received most of the attention, circumstances surrounding the pandemic have led a significant number of shoppers to try out new brick-and-mortar channels as well. At least 15% of survey respondents who are shopping for groceries in each of the key CPG channels said they were doing so as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic. “They’re likely going to the closest store, or maybe to a location they feel is the most sanitary and is doing all the things they need in order to feel safe,” Nicklin suggested.

“This creates opportunities for retailers in different verticals to make connections with new shoppers that might stick long-term,” she said. “But there’s also the downside, where some retailers might be seeing fewer shoppers coming into their stores. There, the question becomes, ‘How do we get those shoppers back?’”

Shoppers Are Planning More

Sheltering-in-place restrictions and safety concerns seem to have U.S. residents thinking more about some of their shopping activities.

For one, nearly 50% of shoppers now identify themselves as trip planners, vs. fewer than 25% before the pandemic began (see chart below). That behavior is likely a key driver of the increase in stock-up trips currently taking place (32% of shoppers, vs. 13% before the crisis).


In general, “the shopper universe is now conforming along a more homogenized set of behaviors that are very organized, are designed for high efficiency, and result in larger but fewer shopping trips,” said Nicklin.

“Getting on the list” has been a critical objective for shopper marketers since the “analog days” when weekly circulars were basically the only vehicle for doing so. The more shoppers planning their trips, the more that pre-shop aspects of the path to purchase will become important touchpoints for marketing. Retailer websites and mobile apps are the most logical venues, along with third-party shopper services that either help users literally build lists or incentivize the purchase of partnering brands.

Recipe and meal advice are another way to go, especially since more consumers are preparing meals at home these days – and shopping accordingly. In the survey, 66% of respondents said they were preparing full meals at home – but 88% said they expect to do more of that in the future. (Welcome back, Mrs. Cleaver.) What’s more, an earlier Institute survey found that 79% of shoppers are heading to the store with specific ingredients on their list – with 28% saying they’re doing that more often than before.

If this is a behavior that does truly stick post-pandemic, then promoting brands within the context of meal solutions could be an even more effective strategy than it was previously.

A significant return to the bygone days of home-cooked meals could even factor into future strategies for in-store merchandising, with retailers focusing more on multi-product meal solution programs and displays – and less on category-centric aisles – that can help shoppers find everything they need for dinner more easily.

Shoppers Want Speedier Trips

Meal solution centers and similar concepts would also help shoppers achieve another goal that has intensified in the last few months: the desire to speed up the trip. Just over 50% of respondents said they now want to “get in and out” of stores quickly, a goal only 13% said they had before the crisis hit.

This behavior change also has implications for product merchandising, as well as for the overall store environment. And this is another area in which the pandemic isn’t so much inspiring new action as it likely will expedite efforts already taking place. In the name of shopper-centricity, retail has been steadily moving away from the days when stores were designed to force shoppers into traversing as much real estate as possible. (Yes, that’s why the milk cooler is still often buried in the back corner.)

But while “Grab and Go” sections aren’t exactly a new merchandising idea, retailers and brands should probably start considering ways to reconfigure stores and display programs to facilitate a faster trip.

Shoppers Are Moving Online

Speaking of expedited trends, some analysts are estimating that the crisis has pushed online grocery shopping to levels that wouldn’t have been achieved otherwise for another three to five years. Exactly how much of the current activity will subside when restrictions decline and shoppers feel safe to return to stores isn’t quite clear – especially since the online experience (most frequently long waits for deliveries and incomplete or incorrect orders) hasn’t been ideal for all first-time users.

But wherever levels land immediately after the crisis, they are expected to grow at a pace faster than before. And that makes the need for brands and retailers to continue aggressively building out their digital marketing and e-commerce capabilities (both sales- and fulfillment-wise) their greatest priority.

“Shoppers can’t necessarily tell you what they’re going to do in the future right now. Most are still just reacting to what’s happening in the market and what’s going on in the world,” concludes Nicklin. “But COVID-19 isn’t a light switch that we’ll just turn off one day and start going back to stores and back to normal overnight. We will see permanent changes in behavior.”

Editor’s Note: Writer Tom Di Nome contributed to this report.