Shoppers these days may need to take a cue from a Rolling Stones hit when it comes to setting their expectations: You can’t always get what you want.
For years, Amazon and the rise of online shopping trained consumers to expect everything from groceries to furniture delivered to their doorsteps at the click of a button. While the pandemic introduced many to online shopping for the first time, the global supply chain disruptions that have come with it in the past 18 months have forced people to grapple with experiences once unimaginable: Product shortages. Extended delays. Frustration that they can’t get goods right away. Depending on where you are, even buying a milkshake from McDonald’s can prove to be a challenge.
Now, shoppers are heading into the holiday buying rush facing the prospect of additional shortages or delays, despite tactics from big chains such as ordering products early, chartering their own ships, and bringing in overseas goods by air.
“Delays during the pandemic have caused a lot of pain in terms of putting a brake on both instant gratification and efficiency. Now consumers are trying to recalibrate,” said Ashwani Monga, a professor of marketing at Rutgers Business School and author of the book Becoming a Consumer Psychologist.
Climate change may mean product delays become a part of everyday life for shoppers in the long-term. Even after Covid-19 cases wane, natural disasters and extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change threaten to disrupt supply chains around the world.
“It’s going to continue to drive these differences in where people are shopping, how they are shopping, and what their expectations are,” said Deidre Popovich, an assistant professor of marketing at Texas Tech University. “It’s not going away.”
Experts who study consumer psychology say the pandemic-era shift from instant gratification to uncertainty over when stuff will be in stock will have lasting effects on shoppers’ habits in three major ways.
The sea change in consumer expectations started off last year with a rush to stores to stock up on groceries and household essentials. Toilet paper aisles were cleaned out. Finding Purell or Lysol was like winning the lottery.
Shoppers stockpiled goods early in the pandemic, afraid there wouldn’t be enough to buy the next time they visited a store, and many continued to buy in bulk. Store shelves are hardly as bare today as they were then. But stockpiling will be the new normal, Monga believes.
The memories of shortages and delays over the last 18 months will lead people to continue planning ahead and keeping more staples like packaged food and household essentials at home than they did in before times.
“Unless consumers feel confident about the functioning of the marketplace, they will keep stockpiling,” he said.
Replacing expensive items earlier
Although demand settled for toilet paper and cleaning wipes last year, supply chain troubles popped up elsewhere in the supply chain. Certain models of laptops, grills and furniture became hard to procure in a timely manner.
Consumers generally don’t stockpile durable goods such as washing machines and refrigerators because they don’t have the space in their homes or the cash to buy them. But Monga believes customers will be more willing to replace these goods earlier than they previously did because they won’t want to risk the product being out of stock when they need it most.
“Consumers will want to replace goods at the first sign of trouble rather than wait until something breaks down,” he said.
Both trends — stockpiling and earlier replacement cycles — will be “great news moving forward” for retailers such as Amazon and home improvement stores like Home Depot, Monga predicts, because demand will stay elevated. But it will also keep up pressure on their supply chains to continue churning out goods.
Turning to new websites and brands
Secondhand clothing retailers such as Poshmark and OfferUp have taken off in recent years thanks to shoppers hunting for luxury items, as well as growing demand from environmentally-friendly customers. The growth of online shopping has made it easier to link people who want to clean out their closets with shoppers eager to buy.
Popovich from Texas Tech said that in the long run, consumers will be more likely to search in stores and on platforms they have never tried, like secondhand clothing sites or Facebook Marketplace, when they can’t find what they’re looking for. That could open up opportunities for new, under-the-radar businesses to gain popularity.
“One implication will be that people are willing to consider other options that they weren’t willing to consider before both in terms of channel and buying used, instead of new,” she said.
Consumers may even savor long-awaited products more so than they did in the past.
“If I know that I have to wait six months for this couch, once I get it, I love it a lot more than a couch that I could have gotten delivered in two days,” she said.