goPuff Consumer Behavior Trends as COVID-19 Cases Fluctuate

goPuff investigates how shopper behavior has changed since cities began reopening while cases have risen at a tremendous rate

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As the daily U.S. COVID-19 caseload has fluctuated over the past few months, consumers have continued to act on their emotions. In March and April, shopping behaviors were rooted in anxiety and uncertainty. However, this trend has waned as warm summer weather set in. Why are shoppers feeling this way when the virus is still present in their daily lives? In this white paper, goPuff’s Integrated Data & Consumer Research practice combines transactional, behavioral and attitudinal data to discern how shoppers are reacting to the reemergence of the pandemic and the key drivers that underlie their surface-level behaviors.

What’s Going On?

When the coronavirus pandemic first began to spread across the United States, April 24 marked the record for the highest number of confirmed cases in a single day, when nearly 37,000 new cases were reported (source: New York Times). Yet since late June, the United States has averaged more daily cases than it did in the spring, with two recent days actually doubling the spring peak and surpassing 75,000 cases. Although regional caseloads have ebbed and flowed as the summer progressed, the pandemic has not gone away. In fact, in some regions, including the South and Midwest, things may be getting worse.

Consumers must respond to their environment in one way or another. While some shoppers have turned back to pandemic preparedness items like masks, hand sanitizer and soaps/disinfectants, goPuff customers have generally returned to their typical product mixes. For shoppers who may not be purchasing the same products as they did at the beginning of the pandemic, the root causes of these behaviors can still be traced back to lessons learned in March and April.

What Are Consumers Buying?

Shoppers were thrown into a frenzy in the early spring as stores filled and shelves emptied of preparedness supplies. Though the situation began to normalize, the then-current state of in-person retail was clearly unsustainable. Thus emerged a case study for the attractiveness of online shopping. As goPuff’s recent blog post on consumption habits said: Why deal with anxiety-filled missions to the store when you can instantly fulfill your emotional needs from the comfort (and safety) of your own home? 

Shoppers aren’t continuing to purchase paper goods and frozen meals at higher-than-normal rates, but the boundless convenience of online shopping has proven to have real staying power. For example, while customers aren’t necessarily buying cleaning supplies and sanitizers as much as they were in the spring, they are shopping online for a broader array of products to minimize their potential exposure to in-store settings. Since January, goPuff has seen a nearly 70% increase in its loyalty program membership. Additionally, since this time last year, shoppers have ordered from goPuff 22% more frequently and spent 28% more per order.

Although shoppers continue to purchase cleaning products and other items associated with health and wellness, this behavior seems to be the exception, not the rule. Terms referencing evergreen favorites like chips, ice cream, candy and water have returned to the list of top goPuff searches in recent weeks. Summer holidays such as Father’s Day, July 4 and National Ice Cream Day have led to shoppers filling their baskets with hot dogs, Tostitos Scoops and of course, Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked. While it’s difficult to determine what impact the virus will have as its presence becomes increasingly normalized in American society, shoppers have begun to indicate through their actions that we are amid a transition back to a more traditional consumer mindset

What Are Consumers Feeling?

It’s no secret that humans are asymmetric creatures. We often feel one thing but do another.

While consumer behavior is returning to “normal,” can the same be said about consumer sentiment? goPuff’s Integrated Data & Consumer Research practice ran a survey of 483 goPuff customers in July 2020 to understand what they were feeling both during the onset of the pandemic and looking forward to the months ahead. Interestingly, while these shoppers show optimism in certain areas, they remain reserved about the future in others.

Much of the overt positivity centers around future improvements in personal finances, as opposed to personal safety and virus protection. Whereas only 13% of respondents said they feel they are better off financially than they were a few months ago, 37% said they expect to be better off financially in the months ahead. The prospects of a vaccine, rehirings and reopenings have contributed to a rise in financial optimism, according to the survey responses. But what about emotional optimism?

For many shoppers, positivity was actually expressed, well, negatively. A notable decline in negative feelings depicts a waning sense of fear that gripped the nation just a few months ago. When asked about their feelings as the pandemic began to spread throughout the United States, 81% of respondents noted feeling stressed. However, looking forward to the rest of summer and fall, this number fell to 64%. Similarly, reports of feeling sad fell from 70% to 49%. On the other side of the equation, positive feelings such as relaxed, happy, content and excited saw slight increases in association, though not nearly of the same magnitude as the decrease in negative emotions.

It seems that consumer sentiment may not be defined by positivity or optimism just yet. Instead, its definition is a bit more nuanced, highlighted more by a decline in negativity and pessimism. Paired with learnings from our transactional and behavioral data, the prevailing belief that things are becoming “less bad” instead of “better” has still encouraged shoppers to begin returning to their pre-pandemic shopping habits. And while American consumers have not yet fully resumed their traditional behavior, the return to “normalcy” is well underway. 

What Does It All Mean?

goPuff’s transactional, behavioral and attitudinal data paints a picture of symmetry. This symmetry is not new; rather, it is merely presenting itself differently than it did in March and April. Months ago, shoppers reported feeling stressed, sad and depressed as they purchased preparedness essentials for a once-in-a-century pandemic. Now feeling slightly less anxious, these purchases have pivoted toward local favorites, nail polish and spiked seltzers. Throughout the pandemic, shoppers have continued to assess their perceptions of the world around them and act accordingly. The big difference is what ends up in the basket.

Though the shopping trip does not look and feel the same as it did in the pre-pandemic period, it’s possible that something resembling the old normal is just beyond the horizon. If so, what does this mean for the state of the American consumer?

Cautious Optimism Rules the Day

While negative feelings are beginning to melt away, it’s important to note that shoppers are still hesitant to fully return to pre-pandemic behaviors. In the face of an ongoing public health crisis, these individuals will seek out brands and retailers that craft experiences around their feelings. When these feelings centered around anxiety or fear, shoppers sought out not only delivery services, but also brick and mortar retailers that were ahead of the curve on contactless pick up, mask requirements and social distancing. Looking to the months ahead, retailers that go the extra mile on customer and employee safety, product availability and even social involvement will win.

Stop Being Here for Me In These Uncertain Times

In the spring, brands rushed to fill ad spots with content that highlighted their ability to provide support and stability in an uncertain and dangerous world. While advertisements have shifted their focus to making the most of life under current constraints, an increase in cases does not mean that brands must try to play savior once more. Instead, brands should recognize consumer fatigue with pandemic messaging and promote the brand voice that won these individuals over in the first place. Even as they continue to practice safety and social distance amidst a rising virus caseload, if consumers are growing increasingly comfortable with conversations going back to normal, shouldn’t brands be willing to have them?

Although shoppers are not mirroring their March and April behaviors, they still show transparency and symmetry. The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Contact goPuff’s Integrated Data & Consumer Research practice at consumerinsights@gopuff.com to learn more about how you can leverage deep behavioral insight & take your brand to the next level.

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