Pandemic's impact on our shopping habits

Has COVID-19 changed the way we see retail businesses?

The coronavirus (COVID-19) has had widespread implications on a number of industries, none more so than the retail sector.

Researchers from the Queensland’s University of Technology (QUT) believe the pandemic has changed customers shopping, spending and lifestyle preferences for good.

QUT Business School consumer behaviour expert Professor Gary Mortimer said retailers were now facing a customer base that was more frugal, cautious and had a higher propensity to shop online.

“Australians are now spending almost $32 billion online, or about 10 cents in every shopping dollar,” Prof. Mortimer said.

“Online shopping jumped by 21.8% compared to the same time last year as COVID-19 restrictions took hold in March and retailers shuttered stores.

“It is estimated 80% of us will be shopping online by next year and ecommerce will reach $35.2 billion.”


Prof. Mortimer said the shift to online shopping could favour small businesses but would present many challenges to large retailers and shopping centres.

“The first challenge retailers face is their online capacity and capability,” he said.

“While retailers have been quick to promote their online offerings, the sudden increase in demand left many floundering, e.g. Coles and Woolworths had to suspend online home delivery and in-store pick-up.

“In contrast, the small and micro retailers that are most likely to survive and thrive after the COVID-19 shutdowns because they were able to pivot and adapt their business operations more rapidly than larger competitors.

“As online channels begin to provide greater revenues, larger retailers may ‘right-size’ their fleet and close stores no longer financially viable.” 

Shopping online

Prof. Mortimer said retailers would also have to deal with consumer confidence being at an all-time low due to unemployment rates and fears of a recession.

“Consumers are understandably now uncertain and anxious about the future, they are much more price-sensitive and value-conscious than pre-COVID," Prof. Mortimer said.

“We are seeing a move from spending to saving with 76% of Australian’s pessimistic about the longer-term recessionary effects of the COVID pandemic.

“During economic downturns, there is a clear shift to thrift and simplicity… Consumers are more frugal: they `cocoon’, choosing to stay in rather than go out. They are cautious about their own and their family’s health. They cook at home, entertain at home, and engage in DIY rather than spending their hard-earned dollars outside the home.”


Prof. Mortimer said while a growing number of Australians were pessimistic about an economic downturn post-pandemic, there were still those who would spend big. 

“While most adopt a more financially conservative approach and have no urge to splurge, other consumers splash out – they’ve budgeted all year for a holiday, and now they can’t go anywhere, so they spend it on a motorcycle or jet-ski,” Prof. Mortimer said.