COVID-19 has taken a significant and tragic toll on communities around the world, impacting seemingly every part of how societies have traditionally interacted and engaged with one another.
Retail is no exception; the industry was already in a significant period of digital evolution — though not without growing pains. Online retail sales were up about 20 percent in 2019 to $3.5 trillion, but only one in every 10 retail purchases was made online, and up to 80 percent of potential e-commerce purchases were typically abandoned at checkout. Among the factors for cart abandonment are email and password issues, plus friction caused by lengthy, confusing payment processes that frustrate consumers.
Then, overnight, physical retail stores had to close entirely or impose substantial changes to capacity, purchase limits, and other operations. For millions of customers and retailers, finding new ways to buy and sell, largely online, was imperative.
As COVID-19 persists, retailers need to understand how this sudden change of unexpected new conditions impacted shoppers’ feelings and behaviors. And with varying case levels throughout the country, some consumers are facing reopenings while others are seeing reimposed restrictions. Online retail is increasingly important to all kinds and sizes of businesses; it’s critical to understand customer needs, hesitations and pain points.
With this in mind, Fast commissioned a national consumer survey to answer a fundamental question about the shifts retailers were experiencing in customer behavior and how those shifts might evolve as the pandemic progressed or resolved: How do customers feel about shopping in physical stores, and what are their biggest worries?
An overwhelming 89 percent of consumers had concerns about shopping in-store, primarily due to fear of being too close to other people, with 63 percent of worried respondents citing it as their top concern. They were also concerned about how often stores were cleaned (40 percent) and how long the lines were (39 percent). Interestingly, despite public narratives about varying levels of concern among age groups and genders, there weren't significant differences across these groups.
The data also showed that six weeks into the pandemic, 77 percent of people stocked up on essential items by buying more than they typically would, primarily out of fear that supply of certain things would run out (55 percent), as well as concern that they wouldn't have enough to last until they were able to return to stores (50 percent). Even as essential stores remained open during stay-at-home orders and others began to reopen, reluctance to shop in person exacerbated these fears.
While cases rise and social distancing remains, worries about in-person shopping are likely to persist. Online shopping is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. Considering e-commerce jumped 76 percent year-over-year as of June, these results show us retailers need to be more nimble, offering a wider range of digital channels, to succeed through the pandemic and beyond. This could include leaning deeper into social media platforms, setting up an online storefront, or experimenting with new strategies, like offering curbside pickup, delivery services, or selling through an established online retailer's marketplace.
At the same time, we believe there needs to be a level playing field; relying on a few big players to supply digital marketplaces and platforms will significantly cut into retailers’ earnings. Small and medium retailers need to have access to fast, easy and safe online tools that enable them to connect with traditionally in-person customers and eliminate the pain points that have plagued online shopping for three decades. Even as businesses begin to open, lingering fears and newly formed habits will change customer behavior forever. Businesses need to have the support and flexibility to change along with it.
Allison Barr Allen is co-founder and COO of Fast, a platform that enables you to easily and securely access the world, without passwords.
Related story: The Future of Retail: Beyond the Pandemic