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As COVID-19 reality set in, consumer habits shifted wildly

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The World Health Organization’s declaration that the spread of COVID-19 had reached global pandemic levels was evident in the ecommerce sales data for the week ending March 16. The stretch saw government orders in various parts of the United States that residents stay home, meaning that those who could work remotely began a regimen of working from home.

It was the week that the reality of the destructive sweep of the coronavirus became evident. Beyond the shelter-at-home orders, major sports leagues and organizations suspended all competition. Large events were cancelled. Beloved actor Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Williams, announced that they had tested positively for the virus. Suddenly someone millions could relate to became the face of the disease.

Coronavirus was becoming very real. And with that, ecommerce sales spiked, particularly sales of items that brought a sense of security and comfort — and those that appeared to be in short supply due to panic buying among some.

Online grocery buying, which had declined 4% the previous week, skyrocketed by 110% as consumers became more skittish about the notion of joining dozens of others in supermarket aisles. The flight to safety was also apparent in a big jump in the sales of Commodities & Collectibles, a vertical that includes precious metals, such as gold bars. Sales in the category spiked by 123%.

And, as covered extensively in the media, paper products — particularly toilet paper and paper towels — became extremely hot commodities. Sales in the consumer packaged goods category were up 160% the week that the crisis officially became a pandemic.

There was also clear evidence that consumers were intent to take care of those who depend on them the most. Sales in the baby products category more than doubled, increasing 160%, after remaining flat the week before. And pet supplies sales increased by 59% the week of March 10, after having fallen 6% the week before.

It was the start of what would no doubt be weeks of sales fluctuations fueled by emotion, need, supply and demand.

Mike Cassidy

Mike Cassidy

Mike is the head of storytelling at Signifyd. A former journalist and a retail geek, he covers ecommerce and the way technology is transforming digital commerce. Contact him at [email protected].