The COVID-19 pandemic will undeniably have a lasting impact on consumer behavior. While online shopping was already on the rise, restrictions on in-store interactions during the pandemic led consumers to turn to online options to purchase everything from groceries to cars. With improved delivery systems and a wider variety of options, consumer expectations for online purchases have increased, and consumer behavior trends continue to reflect this shift.
Now, as the restrictions on in-store shopping have, for the most part, been lifted, the question is: will consumers return to traditional brick-and-mortar shopping? Answering this question requires an analysis of both the psychological reasons consumers might prefer an in-store experience, as well as what in-store options are available.
Analyzing the Online Conversation
In a recent article, market intelligence company NetBase Quid applied its social listening tools to better understand consumer behavior trends around brick-and-mortar stores. Using AI-powered social listening tools, NetBase Quid analyzed large data sets of online news stories to determine how these stories depicted online and in-store shopping trends in 2021 and 2022. They found that there were a roughly equivalent number of stories focusing on the return of in-store shopping and stories discussing the rise of online shopping. This suggests that, at least in terms of the online conversation, the narrative that online shopping is quickly displacing in-store options may be too simple.
Why Consumers Choose In-Store Shopping
To understand why consumers might still choose an in-store shopping experience despite the convenience and availability of online options, we need to consider the underlying psychology of consumer behavior.
Perhaps the most obvious reason consumers continue to shop at brick-and-mortar stores is the ability to touch, see, and test items before purchasing them. While consumers were willing to sacrifice this feature of in-store shopping during the pandemic for safety reasons, now that in-store shopping does not pose the same risk, consumers may favor in-store options for items with more potential variance, such as clothing, or for larger purchases such as televisions or cars.
According to “State of the In-store Experience Report”, a recent consumer behavior study commissioned by signage company Raydiant, 48% of consumers favored in-store shopping in 2021, and 24% of respondents identified the desire to interact with products as the central reason for this preference.
Another reason consumers may favor in-store shopping is the immediacy of the in-store purchases. Rather than wait days or weeks for an item to be delivered, consumers can leave the store with the item in hand. While delivery systems for online purchases have improved, most deliveries take at least a few days, and we have seen recently that global supply chain issues can unexpectedly delay deliveries.
In addition to the immediacy of the purchase, in-store shoppers benefit from saving on shipping fees. According to the Raydiant report, 13.2% of respondents listed not wanting to pay shipping fees as the motivation for their in-store shopping.
A Hybrid Alternative?
Given that in-store and online shopping both provide consumers with unique kinds of value, it is only natural that companies would try to blend brick-and-mortar and online options to create a hybrid experience that offers the best of both worlds.
Many companies are pursuing these options, offering consumers the option to order online and pickup in-store on the same day. This option combines the immediacy of an in-store purchase with the convenience of shopping online from home.
A recent report by market research company Deloitte titled “Consumer Preferences Embrace a Mix of Physical and Digital” found that 27% of online sales were fulfilled at physical stores in 2021, up from 21.7% in 2020.
The Future of Consumer Behavior
While the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on consumer behavior continues to reverberate across the retail landscape, current trends in consumer behavior suggest that we should not be so quick to assume online shopping is killing brick-and-mortar stores.
When it comes to online and in-store shopping, the future of consumer behavior appears to be more complicated, with consumers continuing to favor in-store options for certain purchases and online options for others.
As companies adjust to this new landscape applying consumer research to understand the nuances of these shifting preferences will continue to be crucial.