Image for Ways Pandemic-Induced Consumer Behavior May Become Permanent

The COVID-19 pandemic changed consumer behavior markedly. The evolving question is whether the pandemic changed consumer behavior permanently.

We may not know the answer to that question until supply chain disruptions are overcome to erase shortages and cool off surging price increases. However, a few post-pandemic trends are already apparent.

Online ordering and home delivery gained in popularity during the pandemic and show signs of remaining popular. For many, they have become the new normal way to shop, with fewer in-store visits and checkout waiting lines. Digital goliaths have profited greatly from this trend while many small businesses have been hurt. Specialty retailers could gain from the trend that brings interested shoppers to their virtual windows who might never have gone by their store windows.

Remote work looks as if it is here to stay. Workers may be required to log some time back at the office, but they have become accustomed to avoiding a commute, dressing casually and working in a comfortable corner of their home or apartment. Home improvement spending spiked during the pandemic to make those home office spaces more comfortable. And, as skyrocketing housing prices in suburbs and alternate urban areas like Boise suggest, workers are moving away from central offices to find more spacious and less costly accommodations where they work remotely – and play – even more comfortably. Employers who want workers back in the office are facing some pushback. In addition to home comforts, some employees say they don’t miss the micro-aggression they experienced while working at the office.

This a rare moment when employers are forced to offer higher pay, better benefits and more flexible working conditions to attract the workers they need to reopen fullly. Worker shortages won’t continue indefinitely, but emboldened worker attitudes just might.

Virtual interactions were necessary during the pandemic to replace in-person meetings and business trips, and it appears they will stick around when offices reopen. While Zoom meeting fatigue is a real thing, virtual interaction has a strong appeal beyond social distancing. For one, it allows spontaneous get-togethers for people in distant locations without travel or lining up child care. Convenience may not completely replace meeting over coffee, but it can expand the frequency and intensity of social contact and team collaboration. At the very least, Zoom meetings will replace some staff and client meetings going forward.

Maintaining social distance led people to find other ways to mingle, benefitting social media platforms with virtual stages for storytelling. A survey in March 2020 found 40 percent of Instagram users and 34 percent of Facebook users consumed stories posted by other users. Interest in such authentic storytelling is likely to last and grow, much in the fashion of online influencers.

Telehealth revived doctor house calls for more Americans. Prior to the pandemic, telemedicine was already used to serve rural areas with limited access to medical professionals. With many clinics closed and elective surgeries postponed during the pandemic, doctors, nurses and therapists turned to online medical consultations.

The inability to travel because of pandemic restrictions spawned renewed interest in other forms of entertainment. Books and classic movies filled the travel void, as did digital information sources from podcasts to documentaries to, of course, travel shows. Stanley Tucci brought us to kitchens, cafes and cheese factories in different regions of Italy. Phil Rosenthal dragged friends and families to food adventures in from Tel Aviv to New Orleans. They whetted appetites for more, even when people can actually visit the places they drooled over.

Attitudes may have shifted somewhat on privacy. Data collected during the pandemic showed more than half of Americans were willing to have their location tracked and 84 percent were open to sharing their health data. However, 80 percent expressed concern about how that data might be used after the pandemic ends. High-profile cyberhacks may erase some of the openness to relaxed privacy standards. Consumer privacy will remain a sensitive issue, especially since consumers spent more time online searching a wider array of websites, news outlets and social media.

While the post-pandemic consumer landscape will be notably different, some consumer behaviors may stubbornly resist change. Some people like the security of cashing a check at a bank instead of depositing it online. Diners will want to resume eating out at their favorite eateries. Families will return to zoos and amusement parks. In these situations, change may be subtle. Bank tellers may wear gloves and have more plexiglass protection. Restaurant ventilation systems may be upgraded and tables set further apart. Zoos and amusement parks may institute procedures to minimize crowds in long lines.

One of the biggest changes, workers have more market power than before the pandemic. Lockdowns during the height of the pandemic led to layoffs and furloughs. Federal financial assistance in the form of direct payments and enhanced unemployment benefits kept food on many tables. Now, as the economy moves into rapid post-pandemic expansion, job shortages are rampant as some workers aren’t rushing back. They still have childcare duties and concerns about working side-by-side with people who are unvaccinated. They also have a rare moment when employers are forced to offer higher pay, better benefits and more flexible working conditions to attract the workers they need to reopen fully. Worker shortages won’t continue indefinitely, but emboldened worker attitudes just might.