by James Flynn, senior research analyst – Broadbeam Media
Since the beginning of the pandemic, consumers have waxed and waned in how much they spend in key categories, such as online grocery. These drastic and sweeping changes in consumer behavior were primarily dependent on COVID-19-related activity like case count. In order to figure out who exactly was, and still is, changing their behavior, we surveyed more than1,600 respondents about the pandemic’s continuing impact. What we found is despite the recent rise in cases, consumers have done far less to change their behavior during the most recent surge compared to when cases were high in the winter.
In this survey, we asked respondents about three different periods: Nov ‘20 – Feb ‘21 (period 1, cases high), March ‘21 – June ‘21 (period 2, cases low), and July ‘21 – Nov ‘21 (period 3, cases high again). For each period, we asked about effect on purchasing habits due to COVID, and about spend relative to pre-pandemic for each category.
It was fielded in mid/late September, so for period 3 respondents were asked to predict two months ahead assuming cases continue to rise.
One key finding was the change in impact on purchasing habits between periods. Those who reported a high impact due to COVID fell from 42% to 17% between period 1 and 2, when cases fell dramatically. However, when cases surged again in period 3, those who reported a high impact on purchasing habits only ticked back up to 22%. Though over half of respondents still reported feeling some impact in period 3, most no longer felt highly affected.
A second key finding was the correlation between impact and change in spending levels. We ran correlations for each product/service category and found the strength of almost all correlations (both positive and negative) in the period 1 dropped in period 3. Correlations for sales of clothing and accessories, for example, fell -71% in period 3. In other words, not only are consumer purchasing habits less affected due to COVID, but those who are still feeling impacted aren’t shifting their behavior as much as in period 1.
Another interesting point found was between the recovery of different verticals. Many of the categories that were hit hard (bars/restaurants, travel, gyms, clothing/accessories) rebounded quickly in terms of consumers returning to their pre-pandemic spend. However, many categories that were boosted (online purchasing, online grocery, home video entertainment) are not falling as quickly back to their prior levels. Meaning there’s new habits likely forming across many consumer groups in some of these key categories.
If you’ve been curious about whether to hold back ad spend due to the most recent surge, you likely shouldn’t. COVID-19 activity significantly drove consumer behavior for over a year, especially in certain categories. However, its current effect on purchasing habits is far less drastic despite the rise in cases. Though the large majority of consumers are still feeling somewhat affected by the pandemic, that impact is no longer altering their behavior as significantly.