Not even the Wall Street crash of 2008 saw the retail world having to relearn the wants and needs of the modern consumer as much as the last two years of the coronavirus pandemic. As 2022 enters its second quarter, lockdowns have largely been lifted and the closest thing to normal life is resuming. However, one thing that won’t be returning to “normal” are the hows, whys and whats of purchasing decisions. Consumers are forever changed, and that means retailers and brands are going to need to learn quickly or sink fast. How have consumers changed and where are they spending their money and their time? Are pre-pandemic buying methods and spending habits going to make a return? How can retailers and brands retain customer loyalty? We have highlighted some key trends to shed light on the answers to these questions.

Reflective or intuitive: How consumers make decisions

If retailers and brands are going to survive and keep up with the post-pandemic consumer, one of the things they may have to do is understand how people make choices. In a nutshell, the psychology of decision-making is split between two systems or types: Type 1 is intuitive and Type 2 is reflective thinking. Brands often rely on a person’s intuitive thinking because it hinges on a shopper’s loyalty to them and higher purchase intent, especially when there are promotional deals on offer. For example, if a person has been buying the same baby diapers from the same brand for years, it is cognitively based on a sense of loyalty to the brand.

However, the last two years have forced us to change our daily behaviours and this has affected how we see and reflect upon income, job security and our overall outlook on life. For the foreseeable future, reflective thinking (type 2) is something that brands should spend more time understanding and paying attention to. Reflective thinking is based on a feeling of “rightness”, according to Kantar, a data science company. That initial feeling of rightness, however, can be affected by a person’s situational, cognitive or motivational factors. In other words, the subconscious voice inside your head that says, “This is the brand of running shoe like and I’m choosing to buy it” can be affected by the aforementioned factors. Reflective thinkers (vs. intuitive) are more likely to let these external factors affect their decision and decrease their purchase intent, which is a theory supported by an academic paper by Joyce van Uden who attended Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

In today’s world, those external factors may include the health and financial upsets of the last two years. In 2019, before a whisper of Covid-19 was even mentioned, nobody could’ve predicted that the brands and retailers they’d been shopping from would be affected by second-guessing on such a mammoth scale. Now, years later, situational, cognitive or motivational influences are certainly at play when consumers shop.

Key trends and changes among consumers

Online grocers have seen continued growth

During global lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 that saw consumers having to stay at home, it was obvious that an increase in online shopping for groceries would naturally occur. However, this trend has continued post-pandemic. Globally, from 2020 to 2022, shoppers who bought groceries online increased by 19%. The main reason for this used to be safety related to Covid-19. Now, it’s for convenience. 

However, online grocers should not sit back and relax, assuming to pour all their resources and time into e-commerce. Grocers need to present a strong omnichannel retail experience for the consumer who wants options (and that’s pretty much all of them). Although shopping for meat and fresh produce is still largely done in-store, consumers like the service of home delivery or click-and-collect. It adds a level of comfort and accessibility to a service. A new trend called “top up shops”, in which a consumer will purchase staples like bread and milk online in addition to weekly or monthly in-store shops, shows just how common it has become for consumers to shop online and offline for food even within just a few days of one another. 

Created by JD Worldwide, a new food grocer in the Netherlands by the name of Ochama has blended omnichannel shopping, logistics technologies and robotics to offer shoppers cheaper groceries without cutting on efficiency and quality. Ochama is able to offer food and non-food items that are 10% cheaper while utilising robotics technology to gather parcels for customers who’ve ordered online or on the Ochama app. Customers can choose to pick up their parcel at the store or wait for home delivery the following day. Moreover, Ochama is only available to consumers who become members, instilling a sense of immediate exclusivity and brand loyalty.

From e-commerce to m-commerce

A boom in e-commerce during 2020 and 2021 was inevitable, however, what’s been interesting to note is how even within e-commerce’s growth, sub-trends are emerging. The mobile shopping experience for consumers has become easier, faster, more professional and more intuitive to the shopper’s needs. By the end of 2021, 54% of global e-commerce sales were from mobile, totaling €3.1 trillion, showing that the majority of e-commerce sales came from apps on a phone or tablet. In addition, this number was up by 22% from 2020, showing that more and more consumers are trusting and enjoying the mobile shopping experience. Globally, e-commerce app installs increased by 10% from 2020 to 2021, however some areas beat out this world average such as EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) at 15%.

Less thinking and more doing in personal innovation

Through an extensive survey done by market researchers at GWI, it has found that “seismic changes in the collective mindset” of consumers is taking place. From job resignations to how people have changed their spending habits, a common theme has emerged: Caution, delaying and overthinking are more and more being thrown to the wind. From the second financial quarter of 2020 (roughly April) to the second quarter of 2021, GWI notes that US consumers showed a “diminished need to be careful and responsible, especially with finances''. Upon looking at the research more in-depth, consumers also said that “treating oneself and indulging” became one of their top three priorities in the last year. This type of response was especially high in France and Italy, signalling a shift in Europe regarding consumer behaviour. In terms of pricing strategies, this could present an opportunity for direct-to-consumer (D2C) businesses to make their prices more competitive or marketers to be more suggestive in their communication.

Brand loyalty has taken a knock

Attracting and retaining brand loyalty is anything but easy and on the flip side for consumers, finding a brand you trust and consider the go-to for a particular product is just as difficult. Going forward, the traditional ways retailers and brands attract and retain customer loyalty have been turned on their head. McKinsey & Company reports that in the US, 75% of consumers tried new shopping behaviours and brands, pointing to convenience, availability and value-for-money as their reasons. Of the aforementioned 75%, 80% tried a new digital shopping method and 25% tried a private label or store brand, which are generally known to be less expensive.

Retailers and brands should not discount on finding and keeping a customer’s loyalty, as a study by Bain & Company found that a 5% increase in customer retention can increase profitability by 75%. If a brand or retailer is noticing a shift in purchasing patterns such as consumers choosing other brands for specific products, this may prompt them to want to relook at their pricing or promotional strategies to regain the attention and loyalty of customers whose eyes are starting to wander. McKinsey also suggests that retailers should focus on “strong availability” and to also “convey value” to retain customers. 

The homebody economy is set to continue growing

Because consumers were forced to stay home under strict lockdown laws, finding ways to entertain oneself became imperative. As a result, sales in the home entertainment, gaming, home fitness and electronics sectors sky-rocketed. Looking at Google search volumes in the first and third weeks of March 2020 when global lockdowns first began, “home fitness” as a topic went from level 22 - which is below average popularity for a search term - to level 100, which is the highest level of popularity for a term.

What’s interesting to note is that, even after lockdowns have been lifted, consumers are choosing to spend more time at home and are cooking more at home rather than eating out. McKinsey asked consumers the following question: “Over the next two weeks, how much time do you expect to spend on activities compared to how much you normally spend?” The answers most selected were cooking, home improvement and exercise. Of these, cooking was said to increase by 39%; home improvement by 31% and exercise by 27%.

While the home economy continues growing, e-commerce retailers could - or should - capitalise on how the consumer is choosing to spend their time. If a retailer that sells fitness equipment is smart, they will take this data and promote their home fitness equipment and apparel over items one may use in the gym or in the outdoors. Retailers selling items for construction should promote and prioritise DIY products. Retailers selling homeware should prioritise home cooking, kitchen equipment for families or singletons, and even recipe books for home use. 

Which segments of society are actually adopting these habits and trends? 

Not every change in consumer behaviour applies like a one-size-fits-all blanket. Depending on the socio-economic status of a consumer, reactions to spending in the post-pandemic world are different. According to the same aforementioned McKinsey study, the group most likely to adopt the majority of these behavioural changes are those who have had their finances and health affected by the pandemic in some way. And, most opposingly, the group that is considered the most affluent and secure is also likely to adopt the majority of these behaviours. This group is made up of 60% men who make more than $100,000 per year and have greater job security. The group that is least likely to adopt any of these behaviours at all is retirees above the age of 65. 

When it comes to strategy, does social media have the same impact it used to on consumers?

A more blatant question is, “After the world has gone through an unprecedented health scare that’s torn through economies, homes, and entire families, is the vapid and materialistic nature of social media as effective as a strategy to lure in customers?” Yes and no.

Before the coronavirus pandemic began, a large effect on the spending habits of the 16 - 64 year age group was influencer marketing on social media. In 2019 - and the five years before it - social media feeds were dominated by perfectly curated faces, bodies, and wardrobes as D2C brands and retailers used the power of influence to sway spending habits and profit their way. Today, seeing manicured lives that seem to be out of touch with reality has become less and less appealing. The loss of life, business foreclosures, global recessions and civil conflict on such a grand scale have left consumers looking for genuineness, choosing brands who want to connect in an authentic way. 

According to a GWI Zeitgeist survey of over 9,200 social media users aged 16 - 64, the thing they want the most from brands is authenticity:

While the kind of content consumers want to see on Instagram and other social media platforms may be changing, these platforms have also been advancing their shopping features. Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, SnapChat and Twitter have developed content-driven strategies to get consumers to make direct purchases. As of January 2022, 44% of Instagram users worldwide shop weekly on the platform and 1 in 2 people use Instagram to discover new brands. In 2016, Instagram released product tags but their place in the Instagram shopping machine was only fully realised in 2021 which started allowing people to shop products from a web store and learn information about it without ever leaving the app. This firmly places Instagram in the centre of the m-commerce hurricane. From swimwear to electronics to jewellery, what originally was a photo sharing app has become a global m-commerce giant. 

TikTok uses short videos created by users to begin the path to purchase which, as described by TikTok itself, isn’t a linear start-to-end process: It’s an infinite loop. “Today’s consumers enter, exit, and re-enter at different stages of the purchase journey based on their needs and wants.” This “infinite loop” seems to be working - TikTok users are 1.5x more likely than other platform users to immediately purchase something they’ve discovered on the app.

Looking to 2023 and beyond

What’s that saying about change being the only constant? 

If you had to ask a person what spending or shopping habits they’re going to take on in one year from now, or even two or three, they will likely say they’ll be doing the same thing that they’re doing now. However, studies show that consumers - and people in general - are not aware of how much they change over time. In other words, we can’t forecast our own behaviour, according to a study conducted at the University of Sheffield in the UK. However, if retailers and brands are smart, they will do the work to satisfy these five factors that consumers need fulfilled when deciding to adopt a new behaviour (such as choosing to shop on a store’s new mobile app vs in-store): Cost-effectiveness, time-saving, convenience, enjoyment, personal reward. 

Shopping online and on e-commerce apps should be incentivised more

A report created by Bond, a firm that studies customer loyalty, trends and behaviours found that 79% of customers stick with a brand if they offer loyalty programs. Loyalty programs are just one example of the many types of incentives retailers can use to attract new or retain existing customers. A key takeaway is that incentives should be personalised to the shopper to truly succeed.

Adidas’ Creators Club is a successful example showing how to target new or existing customers. Through an individualised profile that one logs into, you can receive exclusive information on new products, club-only offers, invitations to events, and early access for purchasing new items.

Disney partnered up with Visa to offer fans a credit card that allows them to save up for their dream Disney holiday. The card gives them discounts, accelerated earnings, and credit for flights. Card holders can also choose a card that has their favourite Disney character on it. 

It requires little effort, then, to see the value in incentivising consumers to shop on mobile and e-commerce platforms. The very reason incentives like commission, promotions and other job perks work so well for employees in competitive fields is the same reason consumers choose one brand who has incentivised them over the other who hasn’t: Human beings want more for what they’re willing to give (whether that’s hard work or money). 

An evolving lesson

An academic paper written by Prof. John Hauser (MIT), Prof. Min Ding (PSU) and Dr Songting Dong (UNSW) provides evidence that “the accurate measurement of consumer preferences reduces development costs and leads to successful products” for retailers and brands, showing just how imperative it is to understand intuitive and reflective thinking in the context of a post-pandemic world. This ultimately provides retailers with an opportunity to reinvent themselves within their current market and position themselves to attract new consumers from competitors who fail to see the emerging trends within the market.