Finance Consumer Retailers are reopening their doors, but the coronavirus has changed the way Australia shops
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Retailers are reopening their doors, but the coronavirus has changed the way Australia shops

A man in a face mask shops at a supermarket.
From hygiene to online shopping, the coronavirus has changed the way Australia shops. Photo: Getty
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Retailers are reopening their doors as coronavirus restrictions begin to ease in parts of the country, but COVID-19 has changed the way Australia shops.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said he would like the economy to “snap back” to the way it was once the coronavirus threat is contained, but experts say the retail sector has been permanently reshaped by the crisis.

From strict hygiene practices to the rise of online shopping, the pandemic has had a profound impact on the nation’s shopping habits.

“I don’t think we will see a ‘snap back’ to the way we previously shopped,” said retail expert Louise Grimmer, a senior lecturer in marketing at the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics.

“Social distancing (spaced-out queuing, perhaps limited numbers of customers in the store at one time, etc) and hygiene measures (such as offering hand sanitiser upon entry to the store, increased store cleaning and wiping down) will remain in place for quite some time because we are still not sure about ‘second waves’ of the virus,” Dr Grimmer said.

Australian retailers and shoppers have “become much more aware about ways to prevent the spread of the disease in the context of shopping”, she said.

“We all want to get back into stores that’s for sure – shoppers and retailers alike – but I think once stores start opening, and we are certainly seeing many stores letting their customers know that they are opening, we will still experience perhaps reduced store opening hours and more attention on hygiene and social distancing.”

The shutdown has hit retailers deemed to be selling non-essential items hard, and many in the industry are suffering.

In the medium to long term, though, there will be “quite innovative transformation and a rebirth of retailers” according to consumer expert Jana Bowden, an associate professor of marketing at Macquarie University.

The pandemic has also fast-tracked the rise of online shopping.

From a consumer behaviour perspective we’re seeing a transformation in how people are shopping like never before,’’ Dr Bowden said.

“Traditionally, online shopping has made quite a small contribution to consumer shopping in the retail sector. But, of course, it’s had this significant growth because of social distancing and lockdown.

“That growth in online shopping from the consumer perspective has led to retailers having to offer more value in their online range and increase online delivery.”

Analysis by comparison site Finder showed a surge in traffic to online retailers in March.

Delivery windows at Woolworths and Coles were booked days in advance, while Kmart saw a 90 per cent increase in traffic and trialled an online cueing system to cope with demand.

“Everyone’s locked in and it has significantly increased demand for these online shopping services,” Finder insights editor Graham Cooke said.

From home delivery to click-and-collect: New habits likely to stick

Whether it’s home delivery, click-and-collect or subscription services, Australia’s new shopping habits are likely to stick.

Online shopping is now “a core element of the total retail offering – not just as a side offering, as it has been for so many retailers prior to the pandemic”, Dr Grimmer said.

“Whilst bricks and mortar shopping is incredibly important for social and economic wellbeing and for contributing to local communities, it is clear that online shopping will now be integrated into the retail landscape and the way people shop as we move through the pandemic,” she said.

“Is it here to stay? Yes. This presents challenges for retailers, but I think also highlights the huge opportunities available for stores to connect online with the customers.”

Savvy shoppers have also skirted both supermarket cues and home delivery fees by using click-and-collect or kerbside pickup services.

Consumers can expect to see stores “emphasising services such as click-and-collect or kerbside pickup as well as more subscription box services and a ramping up of online shopping for retailers who perhaps previously had not devoted enough resources to this key platform prior to the pandemic”, Dr Grimmer said.