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Consumer behavior under the pandemic

As people have embraced social distancing as a way to slow the spread of the pandemic, there has naturally been a drop-off in brick-and-mortar shopping. That would seem to mean there would likely be an increase in online shopping as people turn to e-commerce to purchase the items they might have otherwise purchased in person. In reality, e-commerce sales are not higher across the board, although some industries are seeing significant upticks. This is especially true for online sellers of household goods and groceries. A survey found out that people are spending on average 10-30% more online.

While people in general are concerned about the growing pandemic, the youngest generations are particularly altering their purchasing behaviors. Although still concerned about coronavirus and its effects on the economy, older generations are slightly less concerned than younger generations and letting it impact their shopping habits less.

While women are more likely to be concerned about the effects of COVID-19, men are also more likely to impact their shopping behaviors. Men were also found to be shopping online and avoiding in-store experiences more than women. This includes taking advantage of options that limit in-store interactions and subscription services.

Grocery e-commerce soared after shoppers turned online to find the goods, they needed but weren’t available at their local grocery stores. In addition to grocery, e-commerce covers a wide number of products, across categories. While e-commerce sales do not generally appear to be skyrocketing as one might expect, there are some exceptions. One of these is in subscription and convenience services, which have seen significant upward trends in both revenue and conversion.


As people are making buying choices based on new and ever-changing global and local circumstances, the product categories that are being purchased are also changing. Market research company Nielsen has identified six key consumer behavior thresholds tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and their results on markets. These are:

  • Proactive health-minded buying (purchasing preventative health and wellness products).
  • Reactive health management (purchasing protective gear like masks and hand sanitizers).
  • Pantry preparation (stockpiling groceries and household essentials).
  • Quarantine prep (experiencing shortages in stores, making fewer store visits).
  • Restricted living (making much fewer shopping trips, limited online fulfillment).
  • A new normal (return to daily routines, permanently altered supply chain).

Another category of consumer-packaged goods that is booming is shelf-stable items. These fit into the category of people planning for long-term quarantine. According to Nielsen, products like shelf-stable milk and milk substitutes (particularly oat milk) are up by more than 300%. As people are homebound and no longer pursuing external entertainment options that there is an increase in digital streaming services. In addition to streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Disney+ seeing atypical gains in subscribers in the first quarter of 2020, non-traditional streaming services like movie studios are releasing media streaming, on-demand, sometimes earlier than projected release.

While the above products and services are increasing in sales due to the current situation, other industries are not doing as well. In addition to obvious ones like entertainment, restaurants, and travel, one area projected to have significant losses is the luxury goods industry. Omnichannel sellers are seeing big losses, in part because they’re closing the retail arms of their businesses all together. People are understandably not interested in shopping for clothes in person. Even online apparel sales are down as people are putting more of their budgets into daily essentials.

The writer is a Karachi based freelance columnist and is a banker by profession. He could be reached on Twitter @ReluctantAhsan

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