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It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on all aspects of everyday life, from work to social. This period of lockdown-induced isolation and uncertainty has led to an extraordinary, overnight change in everyone’s buying behaviours. From buying in bulk to shopping online, people are changing what, when, where and how they’re buying. And to survive, businesses are having to adapt to these needs.

To help translate these needs into an actionable game plan for businesses, we surveyed hundreds of consumers on their online buying preferences before and after COVID-19. Here’s what we found out and what your next steps should be.

The purpose of our survey and what it covered

Before we go into what we found out, let’s quickly talk about the survey and what we aimed to discover. (Though if you’d like to skip straight to the key takeaways, just click here.)

We sent a survey to a pool of buyers, ranging from the professional and managerial social group grade AB. We also spoke to our customers and analysed the wider market to better understand the correlation between our research and what businesses are actually experiencing.

Our survey covered the following themes and there were two questions for each, one for behaviour before the pandemic and one after.

  • Volume of shift to online.
  • Whether the price was an important factor in the purchasing of items.
  • Our expectations of the delivery promise.
  • Whether we prefer a personalised shopping experience or not.
  • If we prefer to buy from large online businesses as opposed to smaller, independent alternatives.
  • Our attitude to engaging with video consultations on a website.

how have online buying behaviours changed

Our key takeaways from the survey and what they mean for your business

We analysed the survey responses and are about to discuss our findings in-depth, plus what they mean for businesses. If you'd like to see a more visual graphic of our findings (words can be a little hard to digest sometimes, we get it), click the button below. 

Or, do both - grab your graphic and read the blog, in whichever order takes your fancy. 

View the stats

1. More people than ever will be buying online even after the lockdown

Before the lockdown, we found that 23% of consumers made more than 75% of their purchases online. Post-lockdown, this number jumps to 48%. So, more than twice as many consumers will be turning to shopping online as opposed to visiting a brick-and-mortar store.

What does this mean for you?

People are obviously shopping online while the lockdown is in place due to the lack of stores being open and to maintain social distancing. As for when the restrictions are lifted, perhaps people have realised the convenient benefits of shopping online when they may have been apprehensive before. Or, they’re continuing to take precautions.

Before the lockdown, 23% of consumers made more than 75% of their purchases online. Post-lockdown, this number jumps to 48%.

Whatever the reasons may be, it’s clear the significant shift to online channels will continue. For businesses, this means providing a seamless, user-friendly online experience.

Consistency is key – businesses should be providing at least the same experience post-lockdown as they did before it. That means the same level of excellent customer service, streamlined journey from product browsing to checkout, efficient delivery and so on. As more and more of us return to work, these standards should continue to rise too.

Importance of excellent customer service during a pandemicPhoto by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

As well as providing a consistent online experience, businesses should also remain as flexible with their sales channels as they did during the lockdown. If you’re unable to adapt, you may just become the next Primark, whose monthly sales dropped from £650 million to zero overnight. Be agile and you could be as successful as Hotel Chocolat, whose move to shift its entire Easter egg stock from its 120 stores to its website in just a few weeks saw their online sales spike.

The picture seems consistent across many sectors.

For example, one Columbus customer (a London-based SME) changed their business model from selling tools to local tradespeople to garden equipment to consumers. His online business recorded a 100% increase in sales.

It’s vital to provide a consistently excellent online experience and keep your business model flexible. Or risk becoming the next Primark, whose monthly sales dropped from £650 million to zero overnight.

2. People’s delivery expectations are a lot more relaxed than expected

Our research found that before the lockdown, 49% of people wanted their orders as soon as possible (7% wanting their purchases within 24 hours and 42% preferring next day delivery). After the lockdown, people have become more relaxed – 37% preferring next day delivery and 43% being flexible on when they receive their purchases if the delivery date is met (up from 34%).

And the proportion of people who wanted their orders within 24 hours? That figure dropped to a mere 3%.

Another interesting finding is the proportion of people who didn’t mind when their order arrived as long as they got it, rose to 1% from 0% post-lockdown, compared to pre-lockdown. It may be a tiny increase but it’s an increase, nonetheless.

Buyer expectations changing due to lockdownPhoto by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

What does this mean for you?

Consumers appear to be a lot more relaxed about delivery timings in the wake of COVID-19 than they were before. However, this increased tolerance doesn’t mean once the lockdown’s over, you can get away with consistently delivering parcels outside of their estimated timeframe or taking weeks for delivery.

Instead, it means being honest to customers about delivery timeframes and keeping them in the loop. Customers are much more open and forgiving to deliveries taking longer for whatever reason, but they do want to know that in advance and they want the estimated dates to be met.

Before the lockdown, 49% of people wanted their orders as soon as possible. After the lockdown, people became more relaxed – with 43% being flexible on when they receive their purchases as long as the delivery date is met (up from 34%).

For example, while the Arcadia Group as a whole is reportedly struggling during this time, Topshop is one brand under that umbrella that appears to be secure on the retail scene. It’s a mixture of their creative force, their robust digital strategy and efficient customer service that keeps customers in the loop with where their orders and returns are up to.

So, ensure the messaging on your website makes that clear and your support team can provide the excellent customer service your buyers want.


3. People are more flexible about the pricing of items

Before the lockdown, over half of people tended to have a price in mind or a price limit when it came to purchasing items (37% and 23%, respectively). 8% even preferred to go for the cheapest options unless the quality was compromised.

After the lockdown, these numbers dropped to 30% having a price in mind, 22% having a price limit and 5% choosing the cheapest options.

According to our results, attitudes changed to being more relaxed on pricing as long as it’s an item that they want. Post-lockdown, we found 44% of people didn’t mind paying more if it’s an item they want – an increase from 33% before lockdown.

Importance of communication with buyers during lockdownPhoto by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

What does this mean for you?

Like with delivery expectations, our results reflect the pragmatic focus (during the crisis) of receiving the goods. People appear to be less concerned with the price if the item is something they want and meets the quality they’re expecting.

Again, it’s about managing and meeting your customers’ expectations. Keep your customers informed when it comes to pricing, such as explaining why an item or service might cost more than an alternative, and they’re more likely to be lenient.

For instance, Superdry is competing against the likes of ASOS and boohoo.com, with the former’s prices appearing expensive in comparison. As a result, Superdry is justifying its higher pricing with brand exclusives and celebrity partnerships – a strategy which when paired with a strong eCommerce strategy, awarded them with a recent eCommerce revenue growth of 6.8%.

Post-lockdown attitudes towards pricing relaxed as long as it’s an item they want. The key message? Keep your customers informed when it comes to pricing and they’re more likely to be lenient.

4. People are preferring to buy from the smaller brands rather than the big businesses

Our research found the percentage of people who would rather buy from the ‘big guys’, such as Amazon and Ocado (in other words, those with annual sales over £1 billion), stays the same both pre and post-crisis at 8%.

This data is consistent with the increase in sales we see reported by Amazon (up 26%) but if the proportion of spend with these giants was increasing, then we’d see much better numbers from them.

Our survey found that the winners are actually the smaller brands. Our data shows a massive increase in preference to buying from the ‘smaller players’, with figures going from 6% pre-crisis to 19% which is more than a 200% increase.

The percentage of people who would rather buy from the ‘big guys’ stays the same both pre and post-crisis at 8%. But there’s a massive increase in preference to buying from the ‘smaller players’ - of more than 200%.

What does this mean for you?

It’s good news for smaller online businesses. This 200% increase means smaller brands have been given an unprecedented opportunity for growth by the COVID-19 crisis.

To truly pave your way to success, make sure your eCommerce strategy is watertight. For instance, high street retailers are focusing their budgets on eCommerce rather than experiential, in-store projects, offering exclusive subscriptions, extended sales, better product imagery, enhancing their social media strategies and more.

One example is Superdry’s eCommerce revenue increasing by 6.8% despite closing all their stores. This is largely due to improved product imagery on their channels, robust social media campaigns and extended end-of-season sales.

There’s also Peloton, the fitness group who’s been dubbed as ‘COVID-proof’, who are offering 90-day trials of their home workouts that don’t require their branded bike or treadmill.

Ensure your business isn’t left behind by investing in the right digital commerce solution and partnering with a reliable, highly experienced consultancy. The right solution ensures you’re getting the data you need to rapidly respond to your customers’ needs and the right partner can ensure your solution is implemented quickly and according to industry best practices.

Explore our Columbus SWIFT eCommerce service

5. People are slightly more concerned about ethical buying

We found the proportion of people who want to buy products that support their values (such as it being locally sourced) increased to 28% post-lockdown from 22% pre-lockdown. The trend continues, with 24% of people thinking twice about buying a product if there are any ethical questions raised compared to 20% pre-lockdown.

And as for the proportion of people who aren’t concerned with where the products are from? The figures dropped to 22% from 26%.

What does this mean for you?

The lockdown restrictions have influenced consumers to become a little more ethically-driven when it comes to their purchases. Perhaps it’s due to the news reports of smaller businesses and independent brands struggling in comparison to the giants or people wanting their products to be sourced locally to avoid contamination.

The proportion of people who want to buy products that support their values (such as it being locally sourced) increased to 28% post-lockdown from 22% pre-lockdown. So, consumers want to buy more ethically.

Whatever the reasons are and no matter how slight the increase is, people want to make more ethical purchase decisions. This means businesses, both big and small, need to be more aware of their supply chains. Whether that’s how sustainable and cruelty-free their manufacturing processes are or how much packaging and carbon emissions they produce.


A summary and your next steps

To summarise, our survey looked at buying behaviour before COVID-19 and what it could be after. We found that consumers’ behaviour after the lockdown would change in the following ways in comparison to before the lockdown:

  1. More people will be buying online.
  2. People are more relaxed about delivery times.
  3. People are more flexible about how much items cost.
  4. People are preferring to buy from the smaller brands than the big businesses.
  5. People want to make more ethical purchase decisions.

As Winston Churchill once said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” And given the significance of the current crisis, this 75-year-old quote is extremely relevant.

Businesses of less than £1 billion annual turnover must act now in the next month to seize the opportunity. If you don’t act soon then the ‘big guys’ and your fellow competitors will seize the opportunities ahead of you, leaving you behind in the dust.

So, what should you do?

Within the next week:

  1. Analyse your sales figures for March/April and compare them to the last couple of years.
  2. Use your management team to identify potential blockers to sustained growth such as supply chain blocks, delivery capacity and so on.
  3. Draw up business forecasts for 2020 and 2021 based on your own data and the macro data from the economy such as the insights contained in the above analysis. Consider potential new markets that can build upon your brand strengths.

presenting sales figures

Within the next month:

  1. Review all the systems both IT and business that support the eCommerce channel. Identify the key pain points that have been highlighted by the recent ‘COVID-19 Stress Test’.
  2. Review your brand values and see which ones can be promoted, retired and consider new ones to add.
  3. Analyse how well you connect to your customer, what share of wallet and what lifetime value you get from them.
  4. Derive a growth plan that includes your growth numbers and the means to grow and promote your brand.
  5. As part of the growth plan, decide where you need to invest to unlock your growth.

It's time to invest in your commerce technology

One of the best ways to ensure business growth is to invest in some aspects of your commerce technology. A modern commerce platform is essential to meet the needs of your customers.

However, that’s just one potential step in your journey. You also need to consider finding a PIM (Product Information Management) system to ensure that your customers get timely, accurate and relevant product content, a CMS (Content Management System) to allow you to optimise your customer’s experience for different groups of visitors, a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system so you’re always engaging with your customers and more.

This is what we’ve covered in our free guide, ‘New Decade, New Growth’, plus lessons to learn from well-known brands who struggled to adapt. Click the link to download your copy and discover how you can remain competitive in the digital marketplace of 2020.

Read the guide


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