Editor’s note: Ruben Nazario is the vice president and innovation product lead on the Innovation Team at research firm PRS IN VIVO, Atlanta.  

The retail renaissance that began a couple of years ago with the rise of e-commerce and digital touchpoints has both accelerated and evolved since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shopping has been completely redefined. Never have there been as many options for people to shop, and at the same time, the process of everyday shopping experience has been completely upended by the crisis. Some notable changes include:

  • Online shopping has increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic and has introduced online grocery delivery and pickup by necessity to millions of people previously found most often in physical stores. 
  • Many local businesses, such as restaurants and coffee shops, that are unable to serve customers other than take-out or pickup now offer everyday essentials that are harder to come by at grocery stores to compensate for lost revenue as well as provide a welcome service to weary quarantiners. 
  • Facebook has recently introduced Shops, which allows users to shop from local businesses directly from the Facebook and Instagram platforms, and retailers without an e-commerce infrastructure to serve their clientele. 
  • At physical stores, there are more self-checkout lanes, a greater push for contactless payments and traffic flow and distancing markers within store aisles. But not all shoppers observe safety guidelines like wearing masks or social distancing. This makes a visit to the store in regions emerging from lockdown more challenging for those at greater risk for the coronavirus. 

Although some of these circumstances might seem temporary, it is tough to say whether the behavioral changes we are observing are durable. Sure, with many areas in the U.S. and Europe gradually reopening, people will once again go back to stores, but the transition is and will continue to be gradual, and physical retail will not look like it did before COVID-19 (at least in the short- and mid-term). What’s more, there is a possibility that as areas reopen, some might need to close again if cases spike – at the time of writing, this is the case in numerous U.S. states including Arizona, California, Florida, North Carolina and Texas. Therefore, we are likely to see consumers resume some online shopping. This volatility requires brands and retailers that want to continue winning with shoppers to be adaptable, agile and alert to the signals of changes to determine if they are long-lasting.

Impact on retailers, shoppers

The changes in shopping we are witnessing have some positive impact on retailers and shoppers. Many retailers have more avenues to drive sales and can enhance convenience. But loyalty can take a hit when a favored retailer is out of an essential (like toilet paper or pasta) and a competitor with an Instacart delivery service can fulfill the order. 

For shoppers, online shopping provides options and flexibility but can also create frustration. Nightmare stories are abound of people setting alarms at 4 a.m. to get online for a click-and-deliver slot with Instacart and still missing their opportunity to place an order. What was once autopilot shopping behavior now requires more thinking and planning, as well as trial and error. Many shopping methods, like setting up your first delivery order, have steep learning curves for new users. If brands and retailers want to reap the benefits of omnichannel, then they must identify, anticipate and compensate for these unforeseen shopper pain points. 

To do so, brands must observe and quantify behaviors in context, ideally over time, and apply behavioral sciences to interpret them. Shopper behavior, particularly that which may be shifting because of changing circumstances in consumers’ lives, can be fully understood using three types of data: big data, 360 data and rich data. 

  • Big data allows brands to gain a deep understanding of macro shopping behaviors. For example, big data tools help brands quantify the big uptick in online shopping behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic: Amazon converted visits grew by 17% to 100 million; Kroger converted visits grew by 648%; Instacart’s monthly app users doubled from 1.6 million to 3.5 million; and bandanas and hair clippers searches on Walmart.com during April grew 2,000% and 900%, respectively. 
  • With 360 data, or single-source quantitative data, brands and retailers can quantify the omnichannel behaviors across touchpoints among a single group of people, thus allowing for a holistic understanding of omni-shopper behaviors. For example, we used 360 data to understand parents’ omnichannel behaviors when buying baby food. While most baby food purchases took place during the weekly grocery shopping trip at physical stores, we noticed some interesting online shopping behaviors. We found that despite being online mostly during weekday mornings and early afternoons on their mobile phones, parents tend to buy online during late weekday evenings on their PC computers. These behaviors seem counterintuitive at first, but examined more closely using rich data, they begin to make lot more sense and reveal durable lasting opportunities for brands and retailers to leverage. 
  • Rich data are qualitative observations that allow brands to understand the nuances of human behaviors and to experience shopping from the eyes of their consumers. Using the previous example, we observed parents throughout their baby food path-to-purchase, but it was qualitative data that uncovered what drove them to shop for baby food at night using their PCs. Browsing content on a mobile phone takes little effort and for most people it is automatic (System 1 thinking). However, finding the right item at the right price and then checking out, requires more effort (and can often be more rational System 2 thinking). Because parents need to focus while shopping for baby food online, they wait until after their baby is asleep to do this. Our observations also show that parents often seek the best deals by comparing across websites. They prefer to use their PCs over their mobile phones because it makes it easier to switch between tabs and because they prefer the larger screens. Knowing that evening hours are a prime time for baby food online shopping empowers brands and retailers to better connect with shoppers by offering specific deals or featuring key products during this window. And knowing that comparison shopping drives parents to use their PCs is an opportunity for brands and retailers to enhance the mobile shopping experience. 

Understanding human behaviors

These volatile times will be with us for a while, but there are genuinely fruitful opportunities to address pain points as consumers are adopting different modes of shopping. Will they become the new normal? A deep understanding of human behaviors through big data, 360 data and rich data will reveal the lasting trends and allow brands and retailers to enhance the overall shopping experience, influence consumer choice and seize opportunities to build loyalty in the post-COVID omnichannel shopper.