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The Shift In Consumer Shopping Behaviors And Its Ramifications For Retailers

Insights into the changing shopping habits of the COVID-19 consumer

A crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates shopping trends. Before COVID-19, shoppers were gaining more control in the shopping battleground. When the 2020 pandemic hit, this movement exploded, and shoppers became more comfortable making multiple or “omni-choice” solutions to access and shop the products and services they are seeking. Many retailers are now playing catch up to stay in the game. Retailers with weak or no additional channels or options suffered the most during the pandemic lockdowns and gradual re-openings.

No preference shopping

Andrew McQuilkin, FRDI

To understand this changing retail environment, BHDP surveyed 1,000 individuals who shopped at 25 specialty brand retailers to determine how they plan to shop in the future. The results showed that while at the start of the pandemic shoppers mostly had specific preferences on how and where they shopped, a significant number indicated they now no longer have a preference. This increase in “no preference” shopping removes the control from retailers and puts the shopper in charge. That means retailers need to pay attention and adapt to a new approach that puts shoppers and their expectations, changed behaviors and decision-making emotional drivers at the center of the shopping experience.

To address and solve for this transformation, retailers will need to work more strategically to seamlessly marry online with in-store messaging and experiences to provide omni-choice solutions for all shoppers.

Even so, brick and mortar retailers have many obstacles to overcome. Before the pandemic, shoppers were seeking choices in how and where they shopped. A third of respondents preferred online shopping before COVID-19 and many formed new online shopping habits during the pandemic due to COVID-19 restrictions on brick and mortar stores.

Additionally, one-half of shoppers were extremely or somewhat satisfied with their online shopping experience compared to their previous in-store experience. Only 5.5% of respondents were somewhat or extremely dissatisfied with their online experience. One shopper explained, “I don’t feel like it’s a treat to go online. I feel like it’s a chore. There is no magic of discovery.”

Respondents also were asked which environment they feel most comfortable shopping. Only five percent selected Main Street shops and two percent chose city flagship stores. If shoppers are moving to the suburbs, there is less of a need for city flagship and Main Street stores. On the other hand, 48 percent of those surveyed felt most comfortable shopping in indoor and outdoor malls and 27 percent were most comfortable shopping at independent buildings.

Retailers can take advantage of this type of real estate by adding drive-up capabilities and other options to satisfy shoppers’ needs. In fact, it is crucial for retailers to provide multiple omni-choice channels for shoppers as part of an upfront experience—not as an afterthought. These include curbside pickup, walk-up windows, lockers, vending capabilities, and cashless and touchless options.

Emphasizing retailers’ strengths

Brick and mortar retailers need to capitalize on the strengths they offer over ecommerce retailers. This includes emphasizing convenience, the shopping experience itself, product availability and price. One shopper pointed out, “Why shop online when the store is right down the street?” and another said, “I like how convenient the store is and that I can leave with my item immediately.” Respondents also mentioned finding unique items and discovering new products. “The ability to purchase the new item or arrivals and taking it home that same day and not taking chances of it being sold out online,” was important for one respondent.

Beyond focusing solely on price, the retailers that are recognizing and investing in the shopper experience are starting to see some success. They are using a new approach to planning and designing stores, one where all the disciplines involved in conceiving, merchandising, building, and managing the stores leverage a collaborative, shopper-focused, and data-driven process. By leveraging customer data and shopper behaviors retailers can make more informed and empathic decisions, creating meaningful, relevant, and individual shopping experiences.

About the Author:
For over 30 years, Andrew McQuilkin, FRDI, has served in key design leadership roles in the retail industry. In his role as Retail Leader at BHDP, Andrew is responsible for leading the retail design and architecture team’s expertise in branding, store planning, interior design, merchandising, building architecture and rollout for retail clients. Andrew has extensive knowledge and background in strategy, concept design and implementation of stores, with award winning retail designs including six Store of the Year Awards. For more information, contact Andrew McQuilkin at [email protected], visit or call (513) 271-1634.

See also: Executive Insight: Timing Is Everything