Pandemic shoppers are shifting stereotypes

John Clark, Planning Director at Coley Porter Bell highlights the shifting consumer shopping habits, encouraging brands to pay attention to stay relevant.

John Clark, Coley Porter Bell

Planning Director


The holiday season is approaching, the mass sales moment, Black Friday, is almost upon us and retailers battered by COVID-19 are having to rapidly understand new shopping behaviour. Marketing and advertising have long played to stereotypes. But a nation worried about their futures, living a more housebound life and changing their priorities are exhibiting different behaviours.

Retailers and brands need to recognise these new stereotypes; the shifts in what shoppers seek have either vastly accelerated due to COVID-19 or, in some cases, fundamentally changed.

The new stereotypes will not fall into categories based on income or life-stage but rather on factors such as value, relationships with technology, and how brand principles are reflected in the way a company conducts itself.

As purchases are more closely considered, people have spent the year re-discovering human, consumption-driven value.

John Clark

Technological shifts

For example, the shift in how we perceive value, initiated by the rise of the discounter, both grocery and household, had already manifested in fundamental reviews of range and own brands, as well as a rise in tertiary brands pre-COVID-19. Post COVID-19 we have seen this shift continue, with little price differential between discounter and some mainstream supermarket lines, along with innovations such as staples food boxes, to better meet customer’s changing financial circumstances.

While low touch retail options such as Amazon Go were driven by convenience pre-COVID-19, a desire for no, or reduced, human contact may accelerate adoption of say voice recognition technologies to direct you around stores or on shelf to save rummaging around, all to limit person-to-person contact. Or for online shopping, where global sales are up 209% versus 2019, the use of haptic VR tech could replicate the feel of a fabric or the weight of a product in a no touch virtual shopping scenario. And digital screens, once a niche signifier of modernity may become a more commonplace way to try on fashion, whether at home or in store.

And while technology is often an enabler in this future world, it can also lead to more generic experiences if we aren’t careful. Data and technology may enable us to better identify what a customer wants from an experience. But if it’s the only lens we use, then from retail to coffee shops, digital sameness, more greatly exacerbated when built on the same platforms, is our likely lot. Little wonder that Forrester recently recorded a third consecutive year of flattening of customer experience (CX) driven loyalty. To combat this, it’s essential that CX practices are intersected with brand and creativity, to ensure we are not just meeting consumer expectations but driving distinctiveness and differentiation. 

Consumers’ ethical awakening

But it’s not just technology-enabled shifts retailers need to respond to but ethical ones too. 

As purchases are more closely considered, people have spent the year re-discovering human, consumption-driven value, and we’ve been forced to think local. For example, in the months between March and June, sales in small, independent local stores shot up by 69% while 25% of British shoppers recently said they were visiting local stores more than they ever did before the pandemic.

Food miles, seasonality and sustainability could well rise higher in the consideration criteria of many. There’s an inevitable shift in our expectations of brands. COVID-19 will likely accelerate the momentum we are seeing among consumers to shop ethically, and brands must take notice to stay relevant and profitable. Nielsen predicts the US sustainability market will reach $150 billion in sales by 2021.

Retail brands have to think about themselves no longer as simple transactional channels, but as curators, co-creators and social players.

John Clark

Human connection

And purpose is becoming more than an ancillary nice-to-have for brands, with consumers increasingly wanting to understand and see evidence of purpose from brands before they are willing to transact. Brands able to take actions that allow them to tell very human stories and step up to help people amid the pandemic, will reap greater benefits.

Privacy concerns around sharing sensitive data could also be heightened post-COVID-19 with increased use of personal health data, from taking temperatures as a condition of entry to apps that track location and transmit health information. Attitudes toward this use of data are not uniform as there are sharp divisions over the idea of trading privacy for freedom of movement and the opening of the economy. Managing Trust with a capital ‘T’ and how brands reassure customers on data and privacy concerns can become a point of differentiation and even a source of competitive advantage.

The old shopping patterns and shopping habits have been shaken as social distances pushed the world apart and everyday experiences have become more remote. The race is on for brands to capitalise on this moment of truth.

New pandemic shoppers’ stereotypes driven by value perceptions, digital technologies, ethical and trust considerations mean retail brands have to think about themselves no longer as simple transactional channels, but as curators, co-creators and social players called to drive the next order of customer experience in an increasingly borderless world.

Guest Author

John Clark, Coley Porter Bell

Planning Director,


After studying Design and Business, John started his career in advertising at Ogilvy, working on global and local clients such as Unilever’s Dove and Impulse brands as well as American Express. From there he worked at both Publicis and M&C Saatchi on clients such as Allied Domecq Jameson, NatWest and RBS. In 2011 John came both back to design and the Ogilvy group, joining Coley Porter Bell as Planning Director. There he has worked across Coley Porter Bells range of FMCG, retail and Corporate clients including Pernod Ricard, Unilever, Premier Foods and Philips, as well as on joint projects with Ogilvy on American Express, Unilever and Barclays. He has helped to develop the agency’s planning and Visual Planning™ offering, as well as neuroscience tools and understanding with internal and external expert partners. John also sits on the Ogilvy UK Group Board.

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