Breaking down new consumer behavior by sectors and demographics reveals how things have changed during the pandemic—and how retail might evolve after COVID-19.

Zach Thomann: executive vice president and general manager, PFS

Zach Thomann: executive vice president and general manager, PFS

Despite spikes of COVID-19 cases in certain parts of the country, some brick-and-mortar retailers are gearing up for limited reopenings. Malls and grocery stores will likely be less crowded than before, with new safety protocols in place.

Some shoppers will look forward to returning to their favorite brick-and-mortar retailers. But others may prefer to continue shopping from the comfort (and safety) of their couches. What’s apparent is that COVID-19 has caused a significant shift towards ecommerce that may linger, well after social distancing policies are gone.

However, these consumer shopping behaviors vary from shopper to shopper and even between retail segments. For example, millennials and baby boomers have exhibited far different shopping activities, and the channel preferences for shoppers buying groceries versus consumer electronics also varies.

To truly gauge how consumer behaviors have pivoted among retail categories and demographics, PFS recently surveyed 2,000 US consumers. The research reveals some retail categories have seen a surge since the forced move to ecommerce, while others are anxiously awaiting the return to brick-and-mortar shopping. Age and gender play a significant role in determining retail behaviors and exploring the changes COVID-19 has presented across different demographics.


Consumable goods see an ecommerce surge

The onset of COVID-19 has forced many consumers to use online shopping as their sole retail channels. This change put a strain on global supply chains while leaving lasting impacts for merchants across many retail segments. This shift has also led to changes in consumer brand preferences due to online availability. Our recent survey looked at how shopping behaviors fluctuated across the following retail categories:

  • Apparel and footwear
  • Jewelry
  • Health and beauty
  • Office supplies
  • Consumer electronics
  • Groceries and household products
  • Home and garden

Across these categories, our data shows consumable goods have seen an increase in ecommerce volume since the start of the pandemic. There is a sizeable gap between the groceries/household items and health and beauty categories compared to the other market segments. However, it is worth noting that online purchases in the home and garden category appear to have stayed neutral. This lack of change could be due to the essential nature of consumables like groceries and a lack of ecommerce adoption for the retail segment before the pandemic.

COVID-19 also influenced change across ecommerce websites and the online retailers’ consumers shop with due to several factors like availability and delivery times.

Across all categories, over four in ten consumers have shopped with online retailers/websites they haven’t used before, increasing to 58% of jewelry shoppers during the pandemic. Because of a perceived lack of availability, consumers are also ordering items earlier than usual to allow longer delivery times. This early ordering happens for 40% of shoppers across all categories and rises to 47% in jewelry and 50% for groceries/household items.

Younger consumers embrace online shopping channels

The impact of COVID-19 is also evident through the lense demographics. Unsurprisingly, younger consumers lead the way in ecommerce shopping. Across all demographics surveyed, baby boomers and the silent generation are the least likely to have shopped with a new online retailer or website during the pandemic. On the other hand, 75% of millennials have bought goods online during the pandemic that they had not considered prior, while 56% of millennials have tried at least one new brand during the pandemic.


Looking further, 46% of millennials and Gen Z have more online grocery purchases than usual amid the pandemic, compared to just 28% of baby boomers and the silent generation. For the health and beauty category, these figures are 35% for millennials and Generation Z and 15% for baby boomers/silent generation. Thus, the data reveals younger shoppers lead the way in ecommerce usage.

Additionally, 62% of Gen Z have shopped with new online retailers and websites for home and garden products, compared to just 32% of baby boomers and the silent generation. That pattern compares to 55% of millennials and 28% of baby boomers/silent generation for apparel and footwear.

Shifts in shopping behaviors based on gender are also worth noting. Men are more likely than women to buy more online products and shop with new online retailers and websites during the COVID-19 pandemic. This could be due to a lack of ecommerce adoption for men before the pandemic hit and social distancing forced a quick shift in channel preference.

Social distancing has transformed the way many consumers buy things. Breaking down these behaviors by retail segment and demographics provides a much clearer picture of what has changed due to the pandemic and what commerce will look like moving forward. Some market categories, such as consumables, have benefited more than others from the shift to ecommerce. It will take time to determine if these behaviors will stick after the pandemic. These insights prove that merchants must build new strategies that cater to different market segments and demographics.

PFS, part of PFSweb Inc. offers retailers services in such areas as fulfillment, customer service and fraud prevention.