women in mask sitting typing laptop

The consumer changes, yes.

But it’s usually an evolution that’s tracked from generation to generation and is slow enough that brands and retailers can make a tweak here and there and at least try to subtly keep up with the times.

Not this year. 

Retail more or less shut down as millions around the world stayed indoors to social distance. At first it was an anxious game of wait and see with a lot of stocking up on paper towels and canned tuna. But as the initial hopes that it would all last a week or two faded, people morphed as consumers — wanting and needing different things and getting them in new ways. 

Necessity being the mother of invention, retailers worked on the fly to meet these new needs, selling more online, ginning up curbside pickup options and more. And shoppers doubled down on Zoom-friendly ath-leisure and active gear, casual looks, lingerie, skin-care products, wellness and home goods. 

Now the industry is looking for those and other changes, especially around online shopping, to stick — the logged-on consumer is way past the point of no return.

The real tipping point was between May and June,” said Marcie Merriman, managing director, Americas cultural insights and consumer strategy at EY. “That’s when places started to open up across much of the country and consumers didn’t start to revert back. Instead they said [in surveys that shopping online] was even more important. If they were going to move back, it would have been as things started to open back.”

Merriman pointed to research that showed it takes 21 days to form a habit and 66 days to make it automatic. 

Fashion’s biggest companies, which were already leaning into digital, have now pivoted hard — and with both consumers and companies focusing more on the web, the trend is seen as very much here to stay. 

“The e-commerce opportunity is real and it’s big and while we pivoted to follow the consumer through the pandemic, we have just started to scratch the surface for the e-commerce potential of the company,” said Stefan Larsson, who is president of PVH Corp. and will become chief executive officer in February. “Winning post-COVID-19, I’m convinced you will have to, as a company, operate leaner, [be] more data-driven and [have] more speed.” 

So companies are chasing consumers and consumers are charging into the unknown — and while the shorthand is that the pandemic has simply sped up changes already underway, just where shoppers are when they come out of the crisis remains a pressing question.

And it’s a question that cuts across the industry — from luxury to mass to beauty.

“We’ve been seeing remarkable behavior changes across so many categories as a result of the pandemic, and beauty is no exception,” said Kristopher Hull, senior vice president, senior client officer at Ipsos.

“The pandemic has had an impact on what [people] buy, where they buy it, their openness to new brands,” he said. “Also, it’s having an impact on how they think about shopping after the pandemic eases up and as the economies reopen.”

In beauty, for instance, skin care has been on fire — potentially cementing habits that could endure. 

“Skin care started to grow to the point where it captured almost half the volume of the total industry,” said Larissa Jensen, the NPD Group’s vice president, industry adviser, beauty, referring to the U.S. market in a June interview. “This is unprecedented.”

Jensen pinned much of the decline in make up to younger people who are wearing less of it. 

“Add to that the fact that the younger consumer is more likely to be shopping online, and you stir in the pandemic, where online became the only channel for consumers to use, and you’re starting to see the preferences of the younger generation potentially,” she said.

The corollary to skin care in apparel could be active, a category that can feed both the stay-at-home couch potato with loose comfortable styles as well as the workout crew, which has grown during the lockdowns. 

Michelle Gass, ceo of Kohl’s Corp., sees a tough market, but one playing into her favor

The company has been building in the active space for some time — and is also going big in beauty with a new deal for Sephora shops-in-shop.

“There’s more Americans working out than not working out,” Gass said. “And that data flipped during the time of COVID-19.”

But what people chose to buy this year offers only part of the larger picture. 

Shoppers are also thinking more about the planet as they sit at home and stare out the window or escape to the great outdoors instead of crowded shopping centers. 

In September, Coresight Research said sustainability had gained traction during the pandemic. 

Some 29 percent of respondents of a Coresight survey said the pandemic had them prioritizing sustainability, citing reasons such as shifting priorities and lockdown, “indicating the potential for rapid change.” Comparatively, some 16 percent said the crisis made sustainability less of a factor.

“Among those who said the crisis has made sustainability more of a factor, the number-one reason cited was that consumers have reflected on what is most important amid the pandemic, followed by the lockdown showing the immediate impact of changed behaviors on the planet,” the report said. 

But people are scared, isolated, cooped up and deeply divided politically. And although there is now light at the end of the tunnel, with the first Americans receiving COVID-19 vaccines last week, that mix of psychological traumas is leaving its mark on society at large and the business of selling fashion.

In July, a study by Silvur found that the increasing anxiety among Americans was impacting their behavior as consumers, especially Millennials and Gen X shoppers. 

Silvur said 82 percent of Americans reported that “worry about their future is driving the anxiety at least somewhat.” Just over half of respondents linked their stress with financial anxiety, with half of respondents living paycheck to paycheck.

Nearly half of the shoppers surveyed say they plan to stick to money-saving habits they picked up during the pandemic. 

As of late, at least some people have started feeling a little better, at least on the presidential front. 

Richard Curtin, chief economist at the University of Michigan’s Surveys of Consumers, said: “Consumer sentiment posted a surprising increase in early December due to a partisan shift in economic prospects. Following [Democrat Joe] Biden’s election, Democrats became much more optimistic, and Republicans much more pessimistic, the opposite of the partisan shift that occurred when [Donald] Trump was elected.”

Between August and December, the consumer expectations index rose by 39.5 points to about 85 for Democrats, and fell among Republicans by 34.9 points to about 62. 

Curtin said it was “surprising” that the “recent resurgence in COVID-19 infections and deaths was overwhelmed by partisanship.”

“Most of the early December gain was due to a more favorable long-term outlook for the economy, while year-ahead prospects for the economy as well as personal finances remained unchanged,” he said. 

But there’s still a long way back to normal.

“In the immediate future, job losses and income declines due to shutdowns are expected to increase, and the long priority queues before most consumers can be vaccinated will make the wait amid rising deaths all the more difficult to endure,” Curtin said. 

In the space between now and the new world, there will still be plenty of chance for consumers to change — and change again.

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