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The Green Sheet Online Edition

July 26, 2021 • Issue 21:07:02

Street SmartsSM

Lasting, accelerated change in consumer behavior

By Jeff Fortney
Signature Payments

"I knew this would happen one day!" my wife exclaimed as we watched the news reports in the spring of 2020 on shopping carts overflowing with toilet paper. I had expected her comment, for, you see, my wife has been a hoarder since the 1980s.

Now, maybe calling her a hoarder is a bit strong, for it's only toilet paper that she has obsessed about stocking. She's never been inclined to overstock other items, but when it comes to the toilet paper supply, "hoarder" clearly fits.

This became evident when packing for our move three years ago. My youngest son decided to identify the total number of rolls stashed here and there. He found them on shelves and behind suitcases in closets. He found them inside of suitcases. By the time he stopped counting, he was up to 50 rolls, and there were still others.

The upside to this is when the paper panic started, our progeny all knew they could rely on Mom to supply them with all the rolls they needed. They didn't have to join the throngs loading up on paper at supermarkets, they had a hook up.

The wide-ranging impact of lockdowns

Lockdowns, which took place to varying degrees across the country and around the world, didn't just impact us as payment professionals and merchants as our partners; it impacted all of us as consumers. Hoarding toilet paper was just the beginning, as people struggled to address major, unplanned, frightening life changes. Remember the run on mac and cheese and then on frozen cheese pizzas? There was also a shortage of hand sanitizer, so some people made their own using recipes they found online.

Lysol became scarce, too, after it was determined that, when applied to surfaces, it killed SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Yes, it seemed the shelves for many products we usually take for granted were always empty. A friend of mine is an assistant manager at a local Walmart, and he would get phone calls asking the date and time shipments of paper products would arrive, so callers could show up and get their allotted two packages each. Others turned to home supply and office supply stores that, unbeknownst to most, carried paper and cleaning products. Rather than shop around, once consumers located a store with a supply of what they needed, they would call in their orders to that store and do curbside pickup.

Many shoppers discovered the ease of scheduled toilet paper deliveries through Amazon and other online retailers. Others soon realized they could create similar monthly deliveries for items like diapers, and even dog food, from various providers.

The repurposed home

Along with the personal demands of the lockdown, most people had to adjust to the reality of working from home. Those who had not done so previously quickly realized it wasn't just a simple matter of "plug in the computer and you are good to go."

I have worked from a home office for many years, but my wife had never worked from home before the pandemic, nor had she ever wanted to do so. Her reluctance was driven by her concern over interruptions. She often said, "If I worked at home, I would find myself loading the dishwasher or running a load of laundry. I just wouldn't be as productive. And I would miss the interaction with others."

Yet when COVID-19 came into our lives, she had no choice. She needed a computer with access to VPN. And she had to figure out how to interact via Zoom and Team meetings. At the same time, she needed space where she could work without interruption. In addition, when inevitable issues would arise, I had a second job as an unpaid IT consultant.

Everyone faced similar situations. In many instances, two jobs were transplanted to one home. Workspaces had to be created, along with homeschooling areas for families with children. For people living in apartments, space was an especially precious commodity. Internet connections required sufficient bandwidth to support work needs, as well as any other needs, including online school. You also needed to have some office supplies on hand.

People generally believed that working at home was something they could tolerate, for a short while at least. No one anticipated the lockdown would last more than a month or two. But by month six, no end was in sight, and virtual school was starting. Short-term inconveniences suddenly felt like permanent change. Leaving home was rare for all except our nation's essential workers, and when people did go out, it was not normally any kind of pleasure trip. For those who enjoy eating out, cooking every day quickly grew tiring. Finding time to grocery shop also became difficult, especially with all the family members home. Taking time to wait in line at a market to pick up one or two needed items was impractical. Restaurants adjusted to offer a form of curbside pickup or delivery. It wasn't the dining-out experience people were accustomed to, but at least it offered a respite from cooking.

Again, options like Amazon grew more convenient and more common to fulfill both work and personal needs. Need printer ink? Order next-day delivery. Running low on toiletries? Again, get it the next day. In my subdivision the most common traffic seen on many days was delivery trucks from Amazon, UPS, U.S. Postal Service and other delivery services.

Navigating a new normal

As time in lockdown passed, what had been seen as stop-gap measures for consumers slowly evolved into common practices. Online ordering was easy. It started to feel normal. Even those of us who rely on mom-and-pop merchants' in-person sales for revenue shifted much of our shopping online.

Today, we and our merchant partners who survived the worst of the pandemic are facing this new normal. Consumers who are heading back to offices are likely to keep receiving scheduled deliveries and enjoy the convenience of online ordering and delivery rather than stop to pick up items on the way home.

The buying habits of consumers have changed and are not likely to revert back to the way they were before COVID-19 altered our lives. This may not be due entirely to lockdowns. The baby boom generation's influence is waning, and today's typical consumer (and payment card user) is technologically savvy and has been comfortable transacting online for years. The lockdown escalated what was previously a gradual evolution. I don't see consumers taking a step back.

As merchants open their doors, few believe sales will immediately return to normal. In fact, many are worried about what to expect. This is the reality we all need to recognize. The consumer has changed faster than ever before.

How should the merchant respond? What should we do? I discuss that in my next article. end of article

Jeff Fortney is vice president ISO relations for Signature Payments. A long-time payments industry executive and mentor, Jeff is focused on strengthening and developing partnerships and evaluating new business opportunities. He can be reached at 214-458-1379

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