The Effect of COVID-19 on Shopper Behavior: A Quick Guide for Online Retailers


Since the start of the year, the COVID-19 pandemic has escalated at an unprecedented rate, abruptly disrupting the daily lives of consumers worldwide. As news of the pandemic unfolded, we investigated exactly how consumer patterns changed over the timeline of key events surrounding this crisis, says Michael Della Penna, chief strategy officer, InMarket.

With the spread of the pandemic, consumer shopping patterns have dramatically shifted as more people are spending more time indoors. InMarket recently investigated exactly how consumer patterns have changed over the timeline of key events that surrounded the COVID-19 crisis. To do this, we observed and analyzed purchase behavior via credit card/debit card transactions and sales data collected from our panel to investigate what consumers purchased and when.

In summary, the data indicates significant changes in consumer behavior over time. In fact, many of these changes can be classified into distinct phases and themes and may be a signal of things to come.

To measure this behavior, we leveraged two main sources of data for all observations. The sources include InMarket’s permission-based, anonymized credit card/debit card transactions collected from a panel of 1,000 randomly selected U.S. consumers and sales data collected from a permission-based panel of 60,000 app users in the U.S.

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Phase I: Hoarding (2/1-3/15)

On January 31, 2020, the U.S. announced that it would ban entry for most foreign nationals who had traveled to China within the last 14 days. By February 27, 2020, the U.S. confirmed its first case of unknown transmission. During that time, we observed the first major indication that Americans were beginning to stockpile for a potential crisis in the U.S., where credit card spending increased by 25.6% compared to the previous week, and grocery spending by 129.96%.

The next notable event took place on March 1, when Florida’s Governor declared a public health emergency, which was shortly followed by Kentucky, New York, Maryland,

Utah, and Oregon. The result: a three-day, double-digit increase in spending in comparison to the same days the week prior. On March 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, total spending was up 86.14%, 49.24%, and 30.98% respectively.

On March 13th, President Trump declared a national state of emergency, further elevating concerns over the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in the U.S. During this time, we saw another sustained three-day surge in purchase activity compared to the same days the week prior. While purchases were up for key categories such as groceries and discount retailers, we also saw a sharp increase in delivery services, with March 15th having a week-over-week delivery spending increase of 1185.71%.

In addition to overall spending trends, we wanted to look at what specific products U.S. residents were stockpiling as these series of events unfolded. For our analysis, we limited category products to the top six largest observed increases in week over week purchases. Changes most notably began between January 26 – February 1, where WHO declared a global health emergency, followed by Florida declaring a public health emergency. During this time, we saw sharp increases in spending on wine (49.5%), canned food (23.8%), liquor (21.10%), and tobacco (19.4%), among other products.

Phase II: Home Nesting (3/15 – Present)

Going into mid-March, as COVID-19 spread within the U.S. and became more severe, notably hitting American markets hard, widespread stay at home orders began to roll out state by state. By April 7, 2020, 95% of all Americans were under stay at home orders – working remote policies became the norm, and schools began to close as Americans began to settle into a new normal at home. Consequently, American’s began to nest – meal preparation at home increased and double-digit increases were observed across related products such Herbs(17%), Seasoning (15%), and Sauces (7%) as American’s hit the kitchen to cook up some comfort food.

Americans also began to clean and beautify indoors and out as related products such as Carpet/Upholstery & Floor Cleaner increased nearly 75% over the prior week, and Gardening & Lawn supplies rose 46%. Taking care of our pets and ourselves became a national priority as dog and cat purchases increased 26% and 19% respectively, Purchases for oral care and vitamins and oils saw week over week increases of 13% and 10% respectively.

Settling into this new normal has in many respects given many of us the time to reconnect and renew our surrounding environments as we work together to flatten the curve. There is no telling how long this phase will last but early indications are that it is working with new cases and mortalities slowing in former hot spots around the country.

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Phase III: Hope – A New Normal

It’s been a long, tough, and difficult road. The impact for many both personally and professionally has been profound. Anticipation and hope grow week over week as does our cabin fever as we await the day when we can resume our normal activities. While the path back will likely have its own phases as we continue to monitor the spread of the virus, purchasing activity across key categories put on hold or aside over the last several months will likely return during this new normal phase.

Spending on beauty/self-care (i.e. haircuts), restaurants, shopping, entertainment, and travel will likely see increases and eventually return to normal as Americans return to work, increase their social activities and leave their home to seek and resume new adventures and the experiences that bring them joy.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented it has taught us much about the resilience of the human race and the importance of working together. As I look at the phases of the pandemic – hoarding, home nesting, and hyper-purchasing and I can’t help but reflect on what each phase has taught us. That includes the importance of preparation, the safety, respect, and appreciation we should all have and receive for homes and families and the enormous value we all gain from having the freedom to do the things we enjoy and love to do every day. In fact, it is those experiences that so enrich our lives and bring us joy with the ones we love. Until next time – stay safe and healthy!