Americans are shopping less often and limiting impulse buys as COVID breeds a more cautious consumer

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Devon Mosesel of Columbia, South Carolina, shopped for clothing and shoes at stores like Target and Marshal’s a few times a month.

And there would inevitably be that spur-of-the moment purchase.

A book. A calendar. A coffee mug. Candles. A toy or treat for her dog.

Now, she rarely visits Target. When she does, she scurries in and out, grabbing only essentials like toilet paper and paper towels

“I have shopped less frequently,” Mosesel, 39, wrote in an email, “and have really cut back on the ‘wants.’”

In an interview, she added, “I think some of it is a long-term change.”

During the health crisis, Americans have been shopping less often but spending more on each trip or online purchase, according to monthly surveys by NPD Group, a consulting firm on consumer behavior and retail.

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The trend has made for more volatile consumer spending patterns and resulted in fewer impulse purchases, a shift that could have significant implications for the coming holiday sales season, says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for NPD.

What’s more, the new dynamic could last, at least to some extent, for the longer term.

In each of the 12 months beginning in March 2020, when the pandemic took root in the U.S., consumers have made fewer trips to stores, and the average amount spent per transaction – whether in a store or online – was up 13% to 29% from a year earlier, NPD data shows. The average transaction hovered at about $34 before the pandemic, according to the research firm

Even more surprising is that each month this year, the average total spent per shopping occasion was at least 20% higher than the comparable period in 2019, Cohen says. He adds that that’s a sign the shift could endure in some form, noting he expected the trend to fade somewhat as the pandemic eased this year.

“This is carrying over,” Cohen says. “It’s not going away.”

Eighty-five percent of consumers say they intend to stick with or accelerate some or all the changes they made in shopping habits during the pandemic, according to a survey by consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal.

Many people, of course, are shopping at stores less often to limit the risk of contagion, and are stocking up so they don’t run out of items before the next visit, Cohen says. Yet consumers are also stockpiling everything from groceries to T-shirts to shampoo because of supply chain bottlenecks that have limited the availability of many products.

“They’re seeing it and grabbing it,” Cohen says.

“My concern is that if I do not have an ample supply of product now, it might not be available to me when I need it,” says Oren Spiegler, 65, of Peters Township, Pennsylvania. He also worries about a recent spike in inflation that could make products more expensive in a few months.

Many people have shifted their purchases online. But even there, shoppers are spending more on each transaction, at least in part to meet minimum thresholds for free shipping, Cohen says.

The more fitful buying patterns could be contributing to choppy household spending during the health crisis, adding to factors such as periodic government stimulus checks and COVID-19 spikes, Cohen says. Retail sales unexpectedly fell in July before a surprise surge in August.

“With a shift in shopping frequency and selling prices changing, all heck breaks loose in retail,” Cohen says.

Fewer in-store visits also means fewer impulse purchases, which make up 12% of sales normally and 25% for the holidays, Cohen says. That’s partly why Cohen is predicting a 3% to 5% increase in holiday sales this year. Deloitte, by contrast, is projecting a 7% to 9% jump in seasonal sales.

Deborah Smith, of Brunswick, Georgia, says she has shifted most of her shopping online following the pandemic. When she visited stores, she made unplanned purchases “all the time” as she sauntered through the aisles, including bedsheets, clocks, figurines and other knickknacks for the house. Online, though, she just visits the specific section she’s interested in, such as shirts or pants.

After the health crisis is over, she expects to resume her former buying habits, “but only about halfway,” says Smith, who is in her 60s.

Jonathan Sharp, managing director of the consumer and retail group at Alvarez & Marsal, says his firm’s research shows consumers “are hesitant to return to stores because of ongoing health concerns or displeasure at the store environment and shopping experience.”

“This reinforces our view that a return to high-frequency shopping or shopping as a leisure pursuit will be muted for some time,” he says.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Online shopping, store visits fall but consumers spend more each time