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How Retailers Can Adjust to New Shopping Behaviors

Making sense of the facts and figures of a new reality
Photograph: Shutterstock

Supermarkets and other essential business establishments are looking to fill the void for shoppers as millions of Americans grapple with stay-at-home orders and closures of retailers. According to a recent study by Advantage Solutions, 59% of consumers say COVID-19 has affected their shopping behavior. Due to product shortages, retail closures and lack of protective gear, many shoppers are looking for alternatives to their normal purchasing habits. For some, this means online shopping when they would have otherwise shopped in-store, while others are changing the frequency of their in-store visits.

So how has COVID-19 impacted these essential retailers? To better serve their customers and meet the demand for increased safety measures, some retailers such as supermarkets and big-box retailers such as Target have instituted “seniors only” shopping hours. For many senior citizens, shopping poses a significant health risk. This decrease in traffic provides much needed protection. Others have instituted reduced hours to provide more time for deep cleaning and product replacement.

Across the board, products such as hand sanitizer, soap, gloves and other household cleaning products have seen exponential growth in sales. According to one study, hand sanitizer sales increased by 166.2% compared to this time last year.

Even where people are shopping has evolved. Discount stores have seen a 44% increase and food stores a 35% increase in sales compared to last year, while beauty and convenience stores are down 22% and 19%, respectively. Items such as beauty products, which are not deemed essential, have seen this decrease as their primary retailers are closed and people spend less time browsing products during their excursions. However, online sales have increased to offset consumers inability to shop in-person.

With this increase in traffic and sales, nearly all retailers say they are struggling to meet the demand. Unfortunately and unavoidably, many products, particularly the cleaning supplies and protective gear, are out of stock. More than half (53%) of shoppers are currently stocking up on products they normally buy weekly as they worry about shortages. In response, club retailers such as Costco have had to limit the number of items shoppers can purchase in hopes of expanding the shelf life of essential products. Even still, 73% of shoppers say they have experienced product shortages at the stores they normally shop.

Some shoppers have shared stories of spending hours hopping from retailer to retailer just to find one bottle of hand sanitizer. While this is partly due to households stocking up on products, there is also a shortage of factories making and distributing these products. Walmart, who often sells cheaper alternative products made in China, has lost one-third of its medical supplies stock as Chinese factories deal with fighting COVID-19.

One essential retailer hit hardest by the impact of product shortages is the discount store. While discount store sales are up, in general, their consumers are typically on tight budgets. Thus, these core shoppers aren’t in a position to stock up and make bulk purchases anymore, especially with many seeing job cuts. Since these retailers often make their own products or work closely with distributors to make wholesale versions of products to sell their consumers, discount retailers aren’t in a position to increase prices or change distributors to increase supply. Thus, these stores in particular have seen a turn toward long-lasting products, such as rice and canned goods to reduce their trips and make the most out of their purchases.

Each of these essential retailers are looking for ways they can help their consumers and reach them during these times of shopping anxiety. Many retailers and supermarkets have instituted curbside pickup and increased their delivery options to promote social distancing and reducing human interaction. Drugstores are becoming a first stop for non-coronavirus patients as those with the common cold and other traditional illnesses are avoiding their doctors office. Medication retailers have seen a spike in medication and medical supplies purchases that would have otherwise been provided by their physician.

As we all deal with the changes brought forth by COVID-19, essential retailers should bear in mind one thing: They provide an essential service. Regardless of product shortages and changing hours, consumers need their food, medical supplies and every so often, a treat. As such, it is important for these retailers to evolve and make sure they are assisting their consumers in any way they can. Most importantly, keep the environment safe and clean for both employees and shoppers. Wearing protective gear when possible and consistently scrubbing surfaces will alleviate the stress associated with shopping and provide peace of mind.

Elizabeth Fogerty is chief strategy officer for Edge Marketing, an Advantage Solutions company, that offers end-to-end shopper journey solutions.

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