Will the pandemic change our shopping habits for ever?

Are we more discerning consumers than before or simply waiting for the chance to splurge?

One reader says  she used to enjoy going to shopping malls and garden centres but now really has ‘no wish to be stuck in a crowded place any more. Photograph: Angus Mordant/ Bloomberg

One reader says she used to enjoy going to shopping malls and garden centres but now really has ‘no wish to be stuck in a crowded place any more. Photograph: Angus Mordant/ Bloomberg

 

How long does it take to form a habit that sticks? That is a question we have been asking ourselves a lot during the pandemic to try to establish if all the things we had to do as a result of lockdowns and other public health measures are likely to stick.

Will we all wear masks in confined spaces in the future? Will we use hand sanitiser or cough into our sleeves or dance around people we meet on the footpath? Will we still support the shops in our community when the world opens up again and we can spend our money when and where we want? Will we no longer spend money on things we don’t really need simply because they are there and we are aimlessly wandering through the shops?

When it comes to habit-forming, one of the very specific answers that is commonly trotted out– we reckon we have even trotted it out on this page – is 66 days.

But where does that very specific number come from? And is it right? We know the answer to the first of those questions but the answer to the second is a lot more woolly and can probably be summed up with the not entirely helpful phrase – it depends.

The 66 days to form a habit figure comes from a 2009 study by Phillippa Lally and a team of researchers working out of University College London which was first published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

The study sought to “investigate the process of habit formation in everyday life”. Volunteers were asked to “choose an eating, drinking or activity behaviour to carry out daily in the same context [for example ‘after breakfast’] for 12 weeks”.

According to the research, the “time it took participants to reach 95 per cent of their asymptote of automaticity [that’s a habit to me and you] ranged from 18 to 254 days; indicating considerable variation in how long it takes people to reach their limit of automaticity and highlighting that it can take a very long time”.

The average was 66 days.

But when it comes to habits formed by us as consumers, we have been living with Covid-19 in this part of the world for well in excess of 500 days so some of the habits we have got used to are likely to stick.

While Accenture and other companies have been deploying teams of researchers across Ireland and the world to try to establish how Covid will change us, Pricewatch has a found a shortcut to some answers. We simply ask people questions on social media.

We know the approach is not entirely scientific (and yes when we say not entirely we do mean not remotely) but it does offer a snapshot of how some people are thinking.

Last week, we posed Twitter a simple enough question, we asked if the pandemic had changed people as consumers and, if so, how?

The responses were not slow in coming in. Many of them echoed the findings of the Accenture report.

“I have less and less patience for poor customer service either on or offline,” said Cathy Dalton. “I’ve also got used to waiting for what I want. And often finding that because I’ve had to wait, I can afford a better option.” She added that she had noticed herself “moving away from impulse buying”.

I have had the loveliest conversations and most superb customer service from the business owners I’ve dealt with along the way

Sarah Devitt said she had become “more comfortable buying more online as I want to avoid crowds”. She told us she had “tried recently going into stores but found the retail staff poor and ended up leaving”. She also said she noticed that the stock in stores was more limited than she remembered but wondered if Brexit was to blame for that.

By contrast, Caitríona Rose told us she had some very positive interactions when shopping. “I have had the loveliest conversations and most superb customer service from the business owners I’ve dealt with along the way,” she wrote. She also said she had been doing “way less mindless shopping, way more enjoyable shopping when required” and expressed the hope that the changes would be permanent.

Ray Darling said pandemic times had “made me enjoy the simple things like getting out and about more and yet helped me order more online”, while Jake McCabe said it had made him “respect local, ditch online, make a journey to the next town over if you have to”.

Beaird Nairn said she used to enjoy going to shopping malls and garden centres but now really had “no wish to be stuck in a crowded place any more”.

Claire Ronan said she was definitely “supporting local which is Sligo. I will pay more to support my own region. I’m buying different clothes, much more casual and definitely not as many. I’m spending more on food, buying local fresher produce and not eating out even with [restaurants] being reopened”.

Barry Walsh said he was all about shopping closer to home too and as a result of the past 18 months or so there had been “much more local food shopping – more time to prepare it and more value placed on it”. He added that outside of food, it had been “much more functional, things I need rather than want – buying things for their express purpose. Less money spent but more strategic.”

It was much the same story for Phil Kelly who told us “home shopping has changed. Also the attitude towards non-essential luxuries has changed completely.”

George Jacob said he was all about “farmers’ markets, shopping local and turbocharged online buying while avoiding Amazon” – something that came up quite a few times.

I will never buy anything from a buffet or salad bar again. People coughing and sneezing on them

Michael Heavey admitted he was unsure about how he might have changed over the course of the pandemic. “Too early to tell in my case,” he said. “Other than groceries, I have only bought online since March 2020. To what extent that continues, once everything opens up fully, remains to be seen.”

Angela Holohan said after getting used to a weekly online grocery shop her family “now plan our weekly meals and ingredients needed plus treats or beverages ensuring less waste and trips to the supermarket”.

Olivia King told us she was “shopping more locally and trying to support small businesses. Also, more likely to shop online – Irish businesses, not Amazon – than waste a day in town. Clothes spend gone right down – not going out... no need to dress up.”

But that will surely change.

And finally there was a reader called John Rogers who was quite specific about one change he had noticed in himself. “I will never buy anything from a buffet or salad bar again. People coughing and sneezing on them. Come to think of it, no unwrapped food that plague-ridden people handle in shops.”

It is probably a bit harsh but we do see where he is coming from.