How COVID Has Changed the Way Americans Shop

Some habits picked up during the long lockdown are likely to continue, experts say

A number of shoppers wearing face masks leaving a Nordstrom inside a Chicago shopping mall. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

As the nation recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s baby boomers—not teenagers—who want to hang out at the mall.

“The boomers very much are looking to get back in the stores,” says Greg Mishkin, a vice president at Escalent, a human behavior and analytic advisory firm. "But they’re also the most cautious about doing so because they’re still very concerned about COVID.”

At the same time, “younger generations have less of that concern about the safety behind it, but they don’t have that need to be in the store,” Mishkin says. “So they’re more likely to take the convenience of having things shipped to home. If they need something right away, they’ll get something with curbside delivery.”

More on Shopping

COVID-19 changed the way many Americans do things, including shopping. During the more than year-long lockdown, most people got used to ordering nearly everything online, having it delivered, or picking it up at the store. And as the country slowly gets back to normal, some of those habits are likely to continue.

“We’re seeing that consumers of all age groups saying that the shopping behaviors that changed during the pandemic are now habits they’re going to continue,” says Katherine Cullen, the National Retail Federation’s senior director of industry and consumer insights.

Among the changes: greater use of shopping apps, mobile checkout, and in-store pickups. At the same time, shopping in person is now viewed as a “sensory” experience.

Allison Minnesang, for instance, hasn’t been back to the mall in a while. But when she does go, the California-based personal stylist focuses on touching and testing the items she plans to recommend to clients. During the pandemic, Minnesang had to rely on virtual fittings and online shopping.

“Even if I was doing in-person service, where I bring clothes to (her client’s) home, I would still go to certain stores, but I would also order online,” she says.

So as the country gets back to normal, here’s a more detailed look at how shopping has changed.

In-Store Pickups

Picking up online orders at the store, which became commonplace during the lockdown, is expected to continue—but with a twist. Instead of doing pickups curbside, more stores are moving it inside the store, so consumers have a chance to look around and possibly buy something else.

“People maybe were avoiding [inside pickups] in the past, so they were just doing curbside pickup. But now they’re ordering online pickup and they stay a little bit to wander around the store because they feel more confident,” says Julio Sevilla, a marketing professor at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.

Buying online and picking up in the store, also known as BOPIS, has become widely accepted, according to a recent survey by ChaseDesign. The poll found that 90 percent of shoppers will go into the store when picking up an order, with Walmart, Target, and Kroger providing the best experience.

Mobile Checkout

The use of technology to shop became much more widespread during the lockdown, both at home and in stores.

“The pandemic has drastically accelerated the implementation of new technology for many retailers,” Mark Mathers, a vice president at the National Retail Federation, said in a statement. “While these developments can typically take several years of meticulous planning, many were unveiled to consumers in a matter of weeks.”

Mobile check-out, for instance, became commonplace. It not only helped enforce social distancing but sped up the shopping process. Consumers were able to use their smartphones to scan items and pay for them with a credit or debit card.

The growth of mobile checkout was actually spurred by older, less tech-savvy shoppers. Many of them didn’t like navigating through websites at home, so they preferred coming to the store—as long as it was safe. Retailers quickly responded by offering mobile checkout, which made shopping faster and minimized contact with store employees.

“Retailers that end up understanding who their customers are and adapting their experience to the needs of those specific customers are the ones that are going to win,” says Mishkin, the consumer and retail expert. “Those that sit back, and are complacent . . . are going to be failing.”

Other Technology

But it wasn’t just mobile checkout that grew during the pandemic. Shoppers learned to use a variety of technology while in lockdown, says Catherine Gutierrez, vice president of marketing at MFour Mobile Research.

“COVID opened the option for people to buy things more easily through apps and websites, and 73% of people increased their app use in the process,” Gutierrez wrote in an email. “When we dug into what they want out of apps and why they’re so popular —it boiled down to a better customer experience. People like easy and simplicity.”