As news of COVID-19 spread and as it was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, people responded by stocking up. They bought out medical supplies like hand sanitizer and masks and household essentials like toilet paper and bread. Soon, both brick-and-mortar and online stores were struggling to keep up with demand, and price gouging for supplies became rampant.

Generational Purchasing Responses to COVID-19

Generational Purchasing Responses to COVID-19
The response to COVID-19 has not been universally felt across generations, with consumers of different
age groups responding differently to the crisis.

It is important to caveat that this is a rapidly evolving situation, so surveys are quickly outdated as
behaviors change with the circumstances. This applies to data shared here and below.

As news of COVID-19 spread and as it was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, people responded by stocking up. They bought out medical supplies like hand sanitizer and masks and household essentials like toilet paper and bread. Soon, both brick-and-mortar and online stores were struggling to keep up with demand, and price gouging for supplies became rampant.

1. Gen Z and Millennials.

While people in general are concerned about the growing pandemic, the youngest generations are particularly altering their purchasing behaviors.

One survey of U.S. and U.K. consumers found that 96% of Millennials and Gen Z’s are concerned about the pandemic and its effects on the economy. This concern is leading them to change their behavior more dramatically than other generations, which includes cutting back on spending, stocking up on items, and spending less on experiences. 

Portrait of millennial woman smiling at home
Diverse family celebrating birthday active baby boomer senior wearing masks at home.

2. Gen X and Boomers.

Although still concerned about coronavirus and its effects on the economy, older generations are
slightly less concerned than younger generations and letting it impact their shopping habits less. 

For example, 24% of Boomers and 34% of Gen X said they were letting current events impact what items they purchase, compared to nearly half of Millennials.

COVID-19: Men’s and Women’s Shopping Behaviors Vary

While data shows that shopping behaviors are changing based on generational differences, we’re also seeing variations based on gender.

While survey data shows that women are more likely to be concerned about the effects of COVID-19, it also shows that men are more likely to have it impact their shopping behaviors. One-third of men, compared to 25% of women, reported the pandemic affecting how much they spend on products.
Additionally, 36% of men, compared to 28% of women, reported it affecting how much they are spending on experiences (travel, restaurants, entertainment, etc.).

Men were also found to be shopping online and avoiding in-store experiences more than women. This includes taking advantage of options that limit in-store interactions like BOPIS (buy online, pick-up in store), curbside pickup, and subscription services.

Changes in Revenue Across Ecommerce

As people have embraced social distancing to slow the spread of the pandemic, there has naturally been
a drop-off in brick-and-mortar shopping. That would seem to mean there would likely be an increase in online shopping as people turn to ecommerce to purchase the items they might have otherwise purchased in person.

Has that prediction won out? Ecommerce sales are not higher across the board, although some industries are seeing significant upticks. This is especially true for online sellers of household goods and groceries., China’s largest online retailer, has seen sales of common household staples quadruple over the same period last year. A survey by Engine found that people are spending on average 10-30% more online.

1. Grocery ecommerce.

Grocery ecommerce soared in the second week of March, after shoppers turned online to find the goods, they needed but were not available at their local grocery stores. 

The following graph, with data from Rakuten Intelligence, shows a huge spike in grocery-related ecommerce. The rest of ecommerce seems like it might be up a little bit, but no drastic peaks or valleys.

Woman shopping food online
shopping cart with gifts isolated on white

2. Other ecommerce categories.

In addition to grocery, ecommerce covers a wide number of products, across categories. Common
Thread Collective has been providing valuable updates with COVID data on ecommerce shopping behavior, including the chart below. 

While ecommerce performance is not generally up or down, breaking down the data by vertical tells a bit more of the story.

Product Categories Shifting During COVID-19

As people are making buying choices based on new and ever-changing global and local circumstances, the product categories that are being purchased are also changing.

Market research company Nielsen has identified six key consumer behavior thresholds tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and their results on markets.

There are:

Proactive health-minded buying (purchasing preventative health and wellness products).
Reactive health management (purchasing protective gear like masks and hand sanitizers).

Pantry preparation (stockpiling groceries and household essentials).
Quarantine prep (experiencing shortages in stores, making fewer store visits).

Restricted living (making much fewer shopping trips, limited online fulfillment).
A new normal (return to daily routines, permanently altered supply chain).

As we progress through these stages, the items people choose to buy and the product categories that thrive continue to change.                                                                                                                                                  

Here are some of the product categories most affected.

1. Health and safety products.

Anyone who has faced empty shelves or seen price gouging online knows that health and safety products are being purchased far faster than they can be produced and restocked.
According to data from Nielsen, items like hygienic and medical mask sales are up by more than 300%.

Assortment of healthy calcium source food
Manufacture of glass products, workpiece. Young female entrepreneur looking on shelves

2. Shelf-stable goods.

Another category of consumer-packaged goods that is booming is shelf-stable items. These fit into the category of people planning for long-term quarantine. 

According to Nielsen, products like shelf-stable milk and milk substitutes (particularly oat milk) are up by more than 300% in dollar growth. Other items seeing increases are things like dried beans and fruit snacks that have a long shelf life.

3. Food and beverage.

In addition to long-term quarantine type items, for groceries in general, sales are up. However, there are some behavioral changes around the way people are buying groceries.

For example, to avoid crowds at supermarkets, many people are choosing BOPIS (buy-online-pick-up-in-store) or delivery options. Downloads of apps like Instacart and Shipt that allow people to hire personal shoppers to prepare and, in some cases, deliver their grocery orders have increased by between 124% (for Shipt) and 218% (for Instacart). 


Oktoberfest food - sausage, beer and bretzel

People are also choosing to buy these items from online stores more than they did prior. Shipbob, a shipping and fulfillment partner for ecommerce stores, gathered data from 3,000+ of their merchants and is tracking the data. While the chart below shows some fluctuations, the month-over-month increase in online sales for food and beverage is 18.8%

woman is recording vlog

demand, sometimes earlier than projected release.

4. Digital streaming.

While less about the immediacy of protecting and feeding themselves, it comes as no surprise that as people are homebound and no longer pursuing external entertainment options that there is an increase in digital streaming services. In addition to streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Disney+ seeing atypical gains in subscribers in the first quarter of 2020, non-traditional streaming services like movie studios are releasing media streaming, on-

5. Luxury goods.

While the above products and services are increasing in sales due to the current situation, other industries are not doing as well. In addition to obvious ones like entertainment, restaurants, and travel, one area projected to have significant losses is the luxury goods industry.

Vogue Business projects a potential loss as great as $10 billion for this industry in 2020 due to COVID-19.
This is in part because luxury goods rely heavily on the Asian market’s purchasing power, where the pandemic has been affecting consumers since January.

You paid how much for this?!
Meeting In Fashion Design Studio

Even online apparel sales are down as people are putting more of their budgets into daily essentials. The chart below is again from Ship bob’s data of their 3,000+ merchants. This shows an overall 20% decrease in sales month-over-month.

6. Fashion and apparel.

As mentioned above, omnichannel sellers are seeing big losses, in part because they are closing the retail arms of their businesses all together. People are understandably not interested in shopping for clothes in person. Department stores like Macy’s and JCPenney, large chains like Abercrombie & Fitch and Nike, and DTC brands with some storefronts like Rothys and Everlane are all closing their physical stores and experiencing losses. Some stores like Patagonia are halting even their online stores to protect all workers in their supply chain.


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