How the Pandemic has Influenced Consumer Habits and Design Trends

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The more things change, the more we want them to stay the same.

Human nature is one thing that hasn’t changed, although how we interact with each other has gone through a major transformation. In watching design trends and consumer behavior, the best cues come from history and how we act. I am always interested in what gets our attention and what moves us to buy. While I didn’t major in economics, I did enjoy my freshman year economic classes. I also recall basics like laissez-faire, scarcity, supply and demand, costs and benefits, and incentives. Throw all of that into a year with a global pandemic, and we get an economic crisis.

What consumers did amid this crisis is a true lesson in human nature and economics. In 2019 and even 2020, I had written at great length about the consumer’s focus on wellness and the billions of dollars spent or invested in anything to do with health, holistic living, and pet ownership. Now that we have over a year of research, some things have become abundantly clear: it’s not your great-grandmother’s economy.

In the years leading up to 2020, American consumers were splurging on non-essential luxuries such as gourmet coffee, travel experiences, and organic groceries. Oil prices were at a record low, and car purchases were at an all-time high. New homes were going up, and we were on the move as a nation. Now we are feeling like yo-yos, having been halted, opened back up, and once again slowed down (depending on where you live). We have shifted from a spending mode to a savings mode.

When consumers are in a “savings mode,” they will spend wherever they feel they will get the most value for their dollar – an investment rather than a cost. As such, homes have received a great deal of focus, as families sheltered in place and noticed how flooring, furnishings, walls, and appliances needed replacing. Hours that typically had been spent at the office or school instead now were being spent at home. Zoom meetings showcased the backdrops of our homes, adding focus not only to what our interiors looked like, but also how they functioned.

Traditional brick and mortar furniture and flooring retailers should be thriving amidst this upswing in spending. Yet, home improvement stores and e-commerce businesses seemed to be the ones that surged. If you are surviving or thriving, consider yourself fortunate for having found your place in the retail world. Technology seems to have permeated every part of our lives. Daily reminders from smart watches to breathe or to stand up, the addictive ease of purchasing from Amazon, and the “shop” options on social media are all areas where we have changed our daily habits in a big way.

According to HomeAdvisor (recently rebranded under the name “Angi”), Americans spent nearly 10 percent more on home improvement projects last year compared to 2019, rising from $7,560 on average to $8,305 in 2020.

In thinking of supply and demand, the first thing that comes to mind is how everyone was trying to have enough toilet paper to last indefinitely. However, most people could not explain the reason for doing so. Take that to the next level with longer-lasting items such as furniture and flooring, where order rates and meeting lead times quickly became challenging. I don’t think anyone could have foreseen a truck driver shortage or a backlog of containers coming into American ports without enough workforce to offload or process it. Nor could anyone have imagined that big box stores would be selling furniture.

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Manufacturers are doing their best to hold on to their own market share and margins. Domestic manufacturing versus overseas manufacturing are competing markets in which one can hold out as long as is necessary with lower prices until the other is starved out of existence. Only the tech-savvy who have a solid digital plan and a blended supply chain (in the U.S. and abroad) will survive. The more prominent companies are growing, and the smaller ones are fading away. Think in terms of Crate & Barrel, IKEA, Williams-Sonoma, Restoration Hardware, or Rooms to Go. The larger stores certainly had advantages (and leverage) over the small stores for getting delivered first. These companies also benefited from valuable information that can only be gleaned from digital intel gathered from their digital platforms and websites, which already existed.

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Most companies, especially retailers that were not prepared for the digital demands of the pandemic, are slow in regaining their footing, and for some, it may be too late.

Some have described the current “stew” we are in as “boiled frogs,” meaning that many of us have been sitting in the water as it slowly got hotter until it reached a boiling point. Most companies, especially retailers that were not prepared for the digital demands of the pandemic, are slow in regaining their footing, and for some, it may be too late.

Digital demands include stunning graphics, photography that sets them apart, compelling stories, and details on quality or how products are made in a simple way. These are things that take time, planning, and are an investment, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all. The images have to be right, and your story has to be (or at least feel) authentic.

So, what are you doing in this new age where technology has such a strong influence on buying habits? Take the time now to invest in your website. Meet your customers where they are and offer them the digital experience they have grown to expect.

Emily Morrow Finkell is an interior designer and CEO of Emily Morrow Home in Dalton, Georgia, and an NWFA design contributor. She can be reached at emily@emilymorrowhome.com or 866.775.3877.

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