The New Ecommerce Reality: How Buyer Behaviors Changed in 2020

Jimmy Rodriguez

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November 17, 2020

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Do you remember the great toilet paper shortage that plagued the world in early 2020? Do you remember people panic buying necessities and cleaning products at rate retailers couldn't manage? Whether these things affected your business strategy or not, it's no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on how consumers view items they need versus want, and how they go about buying them. 

The world moved online seemingly overnight as brick-and-mortar stores shut their doors indefinitely. Now, we’re all left wondering, as the dust settles and panic buying ceases, how will the retail industry be affected long-term?

As an ecommerce retailer, you're in the best position to take advantage of recent trends and shift your business to suit current needs. But first and foremost, you’ll want a clear understanding of what happened in 2020 and where things are trending now.

How the Pandemic Changed Buyer Behaviors

As COVID-19 swept around the world, almost every country and its retailers had to follow enforced procedures. Retailers made difficult decisions like laying off employees, canceling customers orders and closing stores for good. Local and national guidelines regarding mask enforcement, social distancing and sanitization requirements further forced retailers to reconfigure their operations.

Today, consumers everywhere are coming to terms with this new norm and shifting their shopping behaviors to meet mandated requirements. Instead of relying on physical touch to evaluate a product, many are scouring reviews. Instead of waiting in line to enter a store, customers are buying online, then picking up in stores. 

Most notably, the pandemic revealed to us how customers tend to react during times of crisis or uncertainty. A “survival mode” mentality kicks in. Panic shopping follows. We witness a perfect storm of three key factors:

  1. Customers need to feel in control of the situation
  2. Customers have a desire to do something to protect or provide for loved ones
  3. Customers need to feel like smart shoppers

These factors play into “retail therapy” and impulse buying behaviors, which end with consumers buying more than they need or items they didn’t initially plan to purchase. You could argue that buyers are still reeling from this upheaval, and may never shop the same way they did before.

New Ecommerce Shopping Trends We Saw in 2020

In ecommerce specifically, we see consumers being more mindful about their shopping habits. They compare more products from more companies across more channels. Never before has it been so risky for retailers to remain isolated in a corner, relying solely on their website or Amazon to bring in all the sales. 

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Buyer motivations and journeys have also gotten more complicated. Price is not the single most important factor in making a purchase. Shipping speed, quality, sustainability, delivery method (like no-contact delivery) and return policies all play a bigger role. And if you can’t offer higher quality in addition to a better price than your competitors, you could be losing this battle multiple times a day.

In general, consumers are looking towards online shopping for a safer (not just convenient) experience, whether they’re shopping for essentials like groceries or nonessential like clothing. 

It’s worth mentioning two trends that specifically stand out as having a big impact in 2021, plus the years to come.  

Subscription Services and Memberships

Subscription services are on the rise. Prime memberships increased during the pandemic, exceeding 150 subscribers globally according to Amazon. Walmart additionally unveiled its "Walmart+" subscription service, which offers services like free deliveries, fuel discounts and scan-and-go shopping options. (A survey of over 20,000 U.S. shoppers found that 11% of consumers subscribed to Walmart+ within two weeks of the program’s launch. Among those who subscribed, 45% kept their Prime memberships while 19% migrated off Prime entirely.)

Loyalty programs have similarly grown in popularity among retailers looking to generate predictable sales. While harder to get off the ground, giving customers a risk-free, opt-out option at any time with no penalty has proven to be an effective way to get buyers to try new services.

In some ways we see subscription services nurture habitual buying behaviors, which are starting to reappear more rapidly with time and as the holidays approach. 

Buy Online, Pick Up in Store (BOPIS)

If you have a brick-and-mortar store, you’re far too familiar with the challenge of getting people in the door, especially now. But BOPIS has offered a way for retailers to attract shoppers back to their stores by providing faster fulfillment (BOPIS orders are usually ready within a few hours) at zero shipping cost. 

In fact, one report found that customers selected BOPIS four times more during the pandemic than before, with BOPIS influencing some customers to buy online for the first time ever. Major brands like Home Depot and Nordstrom have added the BOPIS model to drive more sales through their sites without inflating their shipping costs. 

Under this system, in-store teams do the leg work of locating the exact item(s) purchased, pulling them from the floor and storing them somewhere until the customer collects their goods. While this means you need to have the right software in place to ensure that you have enough inventory at the right location(s), it can be a great way to get your customers into the store, where they may potentially grab a few more items. 

In a similar vein, sellers also have the option of offering in-store returns through established third-party marketplaces. As a Walmart Marketplace seller, for example, you can accept returns in any Walmart store at no extra cost to your buyer.

The Future of Ecommerce Shopping: 2021 and Beyond

Going back to the question from before, what more does the future hold for ecommerce? Is the era of luxury brands and impulse shopping coming to a close? Will consumers continue to spend less or shop more consciously across all industries?

By 2021, it's expected that a vaccine for COVID-19 will be available and widely administered, just like the flu vaccine. Once the anxiety of the virus alleviates, how will the consumer buying behavior model change? 

Here are three theories as to what might happen in the near future:

Theory 1: People Return to In-Store Shopping

People will be eager to move away from social distancing, quarantine and panic shopping and regain a sense of normalcy with the places they missed the most.

This concept focuses on the fact that entrenched habits are nearly impossible to break, so people will most likely revert to old spending habits, which is great news for omnichannel retailers. To plan for this, consider what you can do to remind consumers you're still around and how eager you are for them to come back!

Theory 2: Ecommerce Adoption Rates Stabilize

When the pandemic first started, the massive shift to online marketplaces caused issues across the industry. New retailers who had previously relied on in-store shopping moved online in a flurry, rushing to keep pace with their competition and keep business afloat.

Read Also: 5 Mistakes Brick-and-Mortar Stores in Ecommerce

As they learn how to navigate the online world, business functions will stabilize and their company will grow, so long as they continue to keep up with expectations across both their branded website and marketplace accounts--and learn how to manage both efficiently. 

Theory 3: Ecommerce Revolutionizes In-Store Shopping

The third potential future captures the permanence that these new retail industry shifts could have. Consumers are more aware of how the pandemic affected their local community and how many local shops had to close down because they couldn't adjust quickly enough to meet the market's needs, and thereby turn to ecommerce for a majority of their needs.

The lines between in-store shopping and online shopping will be blurred to an extent that we’ve never seen before. Think: More Amazon-Go-like stores. Virtual/AR “fitting rooms.” Physical stores that carry limited inventory and act as showrooms and marketing channels, rather than profit-driving units. 


Companies that can think innovatively with an ecommerce-first approach will likely thrive the most in this reality. 

To Sum Things up...

We’re in for a wild ride these next few months. The best thing you can do for your business right now is to adopt an ecommerce state of mind and build up your online business on top of a sturdy foundation—that is, avoid over-reliance on any one channel. Consider a loyalty program or BOPIS to keep customers coming back. Choose the right shopping cart software and multichannel software that allow you to be agile and shift gears when necessary. 

Most importantly, pay attention to what your customers expressly care about. For example, it’s wise to make your safety and sustainability practices known so your customers can trust that you're doing what's necessary to keep them safe during this uncertain time. With your business on high alert and regularly tracking customer trends, you can keep ahead of the changing reality brought on by the events of 2020.

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