Five seismic shifts in consumer behavior retailers need to know about

Had the Coronavirus pandemic hit us a decade ago, its impact on our lives would have been very different.  Advances in communications technology and eCommerce have allowed us to fulfil self-isolation and stay-at-home requirements without too much inconvenience. Generally, over the past couple of months, we have been able to access the items we need, but over this time our buying preferences have fundamentally changed. New, potentially long-lasting consumer preferences have emerged.

Retailers and eCommerce companies are looking at these seismic shifts in behavior to rebuild their businesses, identify new trends, create new revenue streams and deliver the best customer experience.  Refocusing their businesses with these behavioral shifts in mind will give them a head start.

New behaviors displayed during Covid-19

A poll of 2200 US adults by Pitney Bowes and Morning Consult, presented at a webinar in May, highlights how significantly our buyer preferences have changed. 57 per cent of shoppers surveyed have avoided going to a store since the beginning of the pandemic. 44 per cent of respondents have chosen not to shop online with a store if it requires a physical drop-off for returns. Almost half the consumers surveyed felt their preferences had changed for good. These preferences point to adjustments that retailers and ecommerce businesses should make as they rebuild and refocus.

1. There are more products which we now prefer to buy online – and this will continue

Between 21 per cent and 31 per cent of respondents said that where previously they preferred to go into a store, now they prefer to buy online. 31 per cent now prefer to buy toys, products for hobbies or gifts online; 30 per cent prefer to buy office supplies online; and 29 per cent prefer to shop for personal care and apparel online.  While this might appear to be a temporary situation exacerbated by stay-at-home requirements and limited stock availability, almost half the consumers in the study believe their purchase habits have permanently changed. 33 per cent expect to shop online for food and beverages more often; 30 per cent for household supplies and 29 per cent for personal care, with increases of 19-25 per cent for other categories.

2. Free shipping is even more popular now and we still love shipping notifications

73 per cent of consumers say free shipping makes their life easier – an increase of 10 percentage points from a Pitney Bowes/ORC study of 2826 US adults in September 2019. 66 per cent love it when the returns process is simple, while the same percentage – 66 per cent, an increase of 15 per cent from the previous study – said they most appreciate shipping notifications.   However, consumers are tracking packages less often: 31 per cent, down 11 percentage points on the study from last fall, are now tracking their packages daily, while 24 per cent – 4 percentage points more than last year – will only track on the day they’re notified their package is shipped. 12 per cent, a rise of 8 percentage points, never check the tracking status.

3. We have more patience when it comes to receiving discretionary goods

The pandemic pressed pause on a world in which eCommerce companies raced to accelerate deliveries. Perspectives, and priorities, have changed. The study highlights a willingness to wait for certain products. Consumers would prefer to have the right product delivered soon than a ‘good enough’ product delivered fast. They have the luxury of being more selective about the product they’re choosing. This was applicable to 21 per cent of consumers when buying clothing; 18 per cent when buying consumer electronics and 18 per cent for home goods.

However, Food & Beverage and Household Supplies are the industries in which people have most changed their shipping preferences in favor of faster deliveries, with nearly 1 in 5 respondents saying they prefer to buy from retailers with fast delivery since the start of the Coronavirus outbreak.

4. More of us are signing up to subscription box services

1 in 10 consumers in the poll have signed up to non-food subscription boxes.  11 per cent have signed up for a non-food subscription box specifically as a result of Coronavirus, with the largest cohort being millennials with young families. While they’re unable or unwilling to visit stores, subscription box services provide them with the peace-of-mind that they’ll receive their goods shipped directly to their door. Two out of three consumers that have signed up for these services say it has led them to shop less with non-subscription retailers that sell these products.

With 14 per cent saying they plan to sign up with a non-food subscription service soon, retailers and eCommerce firms have the chance to maximise this opportunity. Subscription box services introduce new products to customers; generate new revenue streams; and drive retention and growth.

5. We prefer home pick-up for our returns – and this is influencing our purchasing

The returns process seems to have a greater influence over purchasing decisions than ever. Store-based returns seem to be falling out of favour: 44 per cent of respondents in the poll have decided not to shop online with certain stores because it would require a physical drop-off for returns. The same percentage say they would be unlikely or very unlikely to drop off returns in-store, and 43 per cent unlikely to drop off at a returns desk or kiosk inside a mall. Instead, consumers are more than happy to manage their returns from home. Home pick-up by carrier is the preferred returns process for consumers, although many retailers still don’t offer this.

Even before lockdown, 66 per cent of consumers said they love home pick-up for returns. Home pick-up is three times more popular than carrier drop-off and four times more popular than in-store drop-off. 53 per cent of consumers are happy to pack an item for returning themselves and have the carrier collect from their home.

Building these behavioural shifts into reopening plans could help retailers and eCommerce companies forge ahead and get closer than ever to their customers.

By Vijay Ramachandran, VP Marketing Strategy and Planning, Pitney Bowes Commerce Services

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