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'We all remember people hoarding toilet paper and the failed attempts at sourdough, but pretty much every CPG category was affected, to some degree, by people being more confined to their homes,' noted Lance Brothers of NCSolutions.

Pandemic shopping behaviors that will stick — and those that won’t

COVID changed how people shop, but some of those new habits are not here to stay, says NCSolutions’ chief revenue officer

Lance Brothers is chief revenue officer at NCSolutions (NCS) with over 20 years of senior leadership experience in media and advertising. Over the course of his career, he has pioneered effective, data-driven marketing and measurement solutions by leveraging his passion for researching, launching and building out new services that advance the industry and drive revenue. The views expressed here are those of the author.


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We’ve had more than a year to speculate about what the “next normal” will look like — that is, how will consumer shopping for CPGs change once the pandemic recedes and people are able to more freely go about their lives?

Now that the beginning of the end is officially upon us and the country is reopening, we’re starting to see that life during COVID might have irrevocably changed certain consumer behaviors for good, while not all CPG-related pandemic habits are here to stay.

The pandemic’s initial effect on consumer spending was drastic. We all remember people hoarding toilet paper and the failed attempts at sourdough, but pretty much every CPG category was affected, to some degree, by people being more confined to their homes. In the first year of the pandemic, there have been sustained year-over-year increases in sales of:

  • DIY materials (such as sewing, lawn care and canning supplies)
  • Baking ingredients (e.g., flour and meal, pie filling, pizza-making kits)
  • All kinds of fresh produce, snacks and frozen foods
  • Not surprisingly, hand sanitizer and all things cleaning

Brands that experienced the most significant sales losses during the first year of the pandemic were on-the-go items (such as travel-sized toiletries, motion sickness medicine and chewing gum); grooming products (people didn’t have much use for hair spray, perfume and shaving cream the past year); and big party essentials like ice.

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Across industries, firms have announced more flexible work-from-home schedules for employees, meaning people may never have the same need they once had for certain grooming products on a daily basis anymore (though we shudder to think about a world in which people stop using deodorant and toothpaste).

The good news is categories long forgotten by consumers are poised for stronger summer sales: Sales for some CPG items that struggled throughout the pandemic have recently started to show signs of a comeback, growing at faster rates — both year-over-year in April 2021 and from March to April 2021 — than is seasonally typical. Sales for motion sickness remedies, travel-sized items, ice, gum, cosmetics and other beauty and personal care categories were all higher this past April — signs consumers may be ready to travel and resume their pre-pandemic beauty routines.

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On the other side of the coin, April sales suggest that categories that benefited from massive growth throughout the pandemic may be coming back down — with both April year-over-year and month-over-month sales for some cleaning, baking and cooking products on the decline — a potential indicator that consumers may be growing more enthusiastic about eating out at restaurants and tiring of their obsessive cleaning habits.

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The next few months will be critical for brands that have been on the short end of the pandemic economy. Brands that have yet to see a substantial rebound in sales should spend the upcoming weeks reminding lapsed buyers about the value their brands provide. People might still be out of their usual pre-pandemic routines, but they’re showing signs of wanting to look fresh once socializing resumes. These brands should also be sure to re-engage their loyal customers, the ones who have continued buying during the pandemic. 

There’s a lot of pent-up demand among consumers, and after a year inside, they are looking for novel ways to spend their cash. For brands on the cusp of a comeback, now might be the perfect time to target new buyers, generate some sample buying and convert them into lifelong loyal customers. Rebound brands are well-positioned to take advantage of this adventurous post-vaccine buying behavior.

The data are for only the early stages of reopening. But once more vaccines are rolled out, an entirely new chapter of CPG consumer shopping begins. How can a brand be successful in this new era? You have to be in the game — start by advertising to remind your lost buyers why they used your products. The brands that succeed in the next normal will be the ones that are proactive in the short-term.

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