C Gopinath

How Covid has changed the shopping experience

C Gopinath | Updated on July 13, 2020

Thanks to lockdowns, online shopping has risen in popularity. But not all stores have been able to gain from this trend

While disrupting life in general, Covid has also disrupted our consumption of goods and services. The consumption experience involves shopping, and so we are revisiting our shopping habits. Even those who enjoyed wandering around the malls have been forced to specifically search for the needed product online and have it delivered home.

Online shopping has ramped up thanks to the required physical distancing and lockdowns. While online retailers like Amazon have benefited significantly, even brick-and-mortar stores like Walmart, which have an online presence, have gained.

At an elementary level, one can differentiate between online and brick-and-mortar shopping by the focus on the product and the process. If you are sure of the item that you want and/or think that the process of shopping is a pain, you will love buying online. Even the process of searching and comparing has been greatly simplified. The same with food — order the food to be delivered or pick it up at the restaurant, and your hunger is taken care of.

But many enjoy the shopping experience, and some even like it as much if not more than the item they shop for. They make repeated visits to the store to ‘feel’ the fabric and compare it with other items on the rack. They place it against their body and sway in front of the mirror. It is a Sunday well spent. When they enter the restaurant, they will survey the room and pick a table. When the waiter approaches, they will seek clarifications about items in the menu. They will ask for more time before they order and relish mental images of the different items.

Scholars of consumer behaviour study this process extensively, and their conclusions go on to shape the advertising, point-of-sale displays, store layout, and so on that gets more people to wander around a shopping site, whether online or brick-and-mortar, and leave happy with a lighter wallet.

Some people believe that Covid’s disruptions will last longer. With economies opening up, companies are getting the chance to redo their strategies and focus on what they think will work as consumers work with shrunk spending budgets. Macy’s, the American department store and an important tenant in many malls, has started reopening stores where allowed by local administration, while its website proclaims discounts in their online shopping. It also provides a compromise, whereby you can shop online and then pick up from the nearest Macy’s.

Primark, a discount clothing store and a neighbour of Macy’s in many malls in the US, follows a different strategy. Even as many retailers rushed to get on to the online bandwagon even before the virus required closures, Primark stayed away from the Web. The company is known for trendy and inexpensive clothes. It has refined this model quite successfully and analysts say that compared to rivals who focus on online fast-fashion, Primark’s prices are at times even 50 per cent lower.

This is because Primark does not suffer the high costs of home delivery that drains many online retailers, and the additional costs of returns from the fussy customer who buys multiple colors and sizes and sends back most of them. For some stores, returns can be more than 50 per cent of purchases.

Other aspects of the buying experience have also been shaken loose from previous habits. With a focus on meeting their necessities, most shoppers seem to be preferring their tried and tested brands and are not willing to experiment. So companies are taking the opportunity to shed weak brands and clean up their stables. For example, Coca Cola had acquired Odwalla Juices, a premium brand that included products like smoothies and required refrigeration in transport and storage, in 2001. Now, with stagnating growth, the company has decided to shut down the brand and focus on other products that do well.

The author is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston

Published on July 13, 2020

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