Consumer Buying Behavior in 2021: How Have Shoppers Changed?

Our survey shows that shoppers are more cautious this year. Consumer behavior online and off reflects the lasting effects of COVID-19.
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shopping cart and bags

To say that 2020 was one for the books is an understatement. Consumers were stuck at home watching their favorite businesses close and worrying about job security — all of these factors helped build a picture of economic uncertainty.

Although 2020 is behind us now, we're still feeling its effects. DealNews recently conducted a survey of more than 1,100 U.S. adults to learn about consumer buying behavior for 2021. As it turns out, many shoppers are being cautious this year, but only when it comes to certain types of purchases. Check out our deep dive into consumer buying predictions below.

The coronavirus pandemic has no doubt affected how much consumers are spending, as well as what they're buying, and it's been influencing consumer behavior in other ways, too. For instance, many consumers seem to be more careful about when they shop now, in addition to adjusting what they're putting on their shopping lists. Our predictions about the pandemic's impact on consumer buying behavior are below.

consumer caution infographic
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More Shoppers Will Avoid the Crowds

Not everyone can — or even wants to — have items like groceries delivered, preferring to shop in-store instead. But consumer buying patterns do seem to have changed in the midst of the pandemic. For instance, 54% of our survey respondents said they plan to avoid stores that look crowded this year. This could mean passing by retailers that have full parking lots, or skipping a shopping trip due to the number of people entering or exiting a store at one time.

SEE ALSO: Top Coronavirus Prevention Tips for Shoppers

Almost Half of Consumers Will Shop During Off-Peak Hours

Some shoppers are just planning to avoid possible crowds by shopping during less busy hours. In fact, 43% of our survey respondents said they'd be doing exactly that in 2021. This will look different based on what region you're in, but overall it seems like the least busy times to shop are within the first hour or two after a store has opened, and then during the last hour or so before it closes. These are the times when traffic seems to dip into the "not busy" range on a consistent basis.

The least busy times to shop tend to be within the first hour or two after a store opens, and the last hour or so before it closes.

We looked at a handful of national chains in different regions of the U.S. to see when they experience peak traffic, as indicated by Google's "Popular times" graph on store info pages. Check out the infographic above, and you'll see the best times to shop if you're trying to avoid crowds.

For stores such as Costco, we've only noted hours from Monday through Friday. Why? Because no matter where the store is located, it's apparently packed on the weekends. If you're trying to avoid crowds, that may mean skipping warehouse clubs and other big stores on the weekend, or at least dealing with a smaller ideal window for shopping on Saturday and Sunday.

Most Shoppers Will Embrace Curbside Pickup

Curbside pickup existed before the pandemic, but it's experienced a huge increase in popularity in the last year. Retailers and restaurants alike have embraced this service, and there's no sign of it going away anytime soon. So it should come as no surprise that survey respondents overwhelmingly plan to use curbside pickup in the future. In fact, 77% of those polled said they're likely to use the feature.

SEE ALSO: How to Use Online Grocery Delivery in 2021

While it might be more convenient to have items delivered, that might not always be possible, especially if a family is struggling financially. Additionally, if your favorite restaurant doesn't offer delivery, curbside pickup could be your only option to support them during this time.

Consumers Will Prefer Meal Delivery Over Grocery Delivery

Not everyone can or wants to spring for delivery — whether for groceries or takeout — but a decent amount of consumers have embraced it over the last year. While 57% of respondents said they're likely to have groceries delivered in the future, a whopping 71% said they're likely to have food or meals delivered.

This purchasing behavior could be related to the cost of delivery services, especially when it comes to groceries. For instance, a yearly membership to Shipt Everyday or Instacart Express is $99. Those services result in lower fees and more flexible delivery times. But combined with the increased costs of items, as well as the selection of stores, some consumers might not find them worth the expense. This is especially true if the option for curbside or drive-up pickup for groceries exists, as these usually don't cost extra and are offered by individual retailers.

71% of consumers said they're likely to have food or meals delivered, compared to 57% for groceries.

Additionally, these delivery services are more widely available now than they were a few years ago, but that doesn't mean all consumers have access to them. If their preferred grocery stores aren't covered, it's even less of a reason to buy into a membership. And some shoppers are very picky, of course; they aren't big on having other people pick out items like meats and produce.

Also consider that pickup is just logistically easier for some consumers, particularly if they can utilize curbside or drive-up methods. These usually cost only your time and the gas required to get to the store.

More Shoppers Will Keep Emergency Supplies On Hand

The pandemic was a hard lesson for consumers, proving many of us weren't ready for such an unexpected set of circumstances. As such, it seems many people are planning to keep emergency supplies on hand now, in order to be prepared should the need for them arise.

SEE ALSO: These 8 Items Tend to Sell Out: Here's What to Buy During a Supply Shortage

Of those polled via our survey, 68% said they're likely to keep a 1-month supply of emergency items on hand at all times. This includes a variety of products, too: non-perishable foods, paper goods, and even personal protective equipment.

Cancelling plans last year might have benefited the average consumer's wallet, but at the cost of sacrificing fun and being social. And by now, people are definitely tired of being stuck at home, too — the "pandemic wall" is real!

You might think this will equate to more spending on group activities this year, or large purchases because of the sheer amount some people were able to save last year. As it turns out, that's not quite the case when it comes to saving in 2021. Read on for our 2021 predictions that relate to saving money.

consumer saving infographic
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Shoppers Will Use Credit Cards for Purchases They Can Afford

We discovered from our survey that respondents prefer to use credit cards over other forms of payment when shopping, with 42% opting for this method in person and 57% preferring it online. This purchasing behavior information isn't really surprising on its own. After all, many consumers may be trying to build their credit history, or just find that credit cards are easier than having cash on hand.

SEE ALSO: More Men Than Women Have an Emergency Fund: Here's How Our Shopping Habits Differ in 2021

However, what we found rather interesting is that 46% of those polled noted they're unlikely to use a credit card for purchases they can't otherwise afford. Perhaps we're moving past the days of buying items on credit and paying them off over time. Basically, a big chunk of people are using a credit card only when they have the funds, which means they can pay the bill immediately and not worry about accruing interest.

Only Some Consumers Will Save Their Extra Dough

To say that 2020 brought financial worries to the masses is an understatement. But that's translated to a smaller percentage of people trying to save extra money than we expected. In our survey, only 9% of respondents said they're most likely to save any leftover funds from their monthly budget, as opposed to using the money on something else.

This could be related to a few things: perhaps some consumers aren't overly concerned with saving money, or more likely, they don't have a monthly budget to begin with. About a quarter of those polled fell into the latter category. Aside from that, the biggest category consumers are putting extra funds toward is dining out and ordering delivery.

The biggest category consumers are putting extra funds toward is dining out and ordering delivery.

Spending extra funds on delivery and dining out could be due to consumers wanting to treat themselves in an otherwise trying time. Plus, when everything else seems overwhelming, having dinner delivered can be one less thing to fret about. In this case, it might be worth it to some to spend that extra money on food and not have to worry about cooking instead.

Further, there seems to be somewhat of a link between those who use a credit card — but only for items they can afford — and those who will be saving their extra cash. In fact, 13% of those who are unlikely to use a card to buy something they can't afford also said they'd put leftover funds into some form of savings. That's slightly more than the 9% of overall survey respondents who said the same.

Most Shoppers Will Have an Emergency Fund

The general recommendation is to have anywhere from three to six months' worth of expenses covered by your emergency fund, but we found that 30% of our survey respondents don't even have an emergency fund. That being said, 53% of those polled noted they do have one of these funds, and 38% actually said they plan to increase their emergency fund.

SEE ALSO: The Ultimate Buying Guide for 2021

However, not everyone is interested in upping their savings in this way, or they may not have the ability to do so. In our survey, we found that 8% of people don't plan to increase their emergency fund at all.

Shoppers Won't Buy Wish-List Items Until They Go on Sale

We're all familiar with creating wish lists, whether they're on Amazon, the Target website, or indie business sites. But once we take that step, how long do we hold off until buying? It turns out, most people are waiting for a wish-list product to actually see some kind of sale before they add it to their cart.

In our survey, we found that a whopping 76% of respondents will wait for their most-wanted items to go on sale before actually purchasing them. This buying-decision behavior just further shows that consumers are going to be cautious about spending in 2021.

Budgets and Credit Cards Won't Always Mix

Consumers of all ages are experiencing economic uncertainty right now, which means creating an annual budget has more appeal than ever. Around 41% of respondents to our survey stated their household doesn't create an annual budget; however, 38% said their household plans to create one this year. And only a quarter of those polled said their household doesn't plan to create an annual budget this year.

Of the people who prefer to shop online using a credit card, 44% don't create an annual budget.

Another interesting bit of information we uncovered is that of the 57% of people who prefer to shop online using a credit card, 44% don't create an annual budget. But 35% of the online credit card group also said they plan to create a budget this year. It seems that some shoppers may use their credit limit as a sort of budget alternative. If they're not buying items they can't afford, then maybe they aren't so worried about needing to create a budget. Perhaps they're embracing frugal habits regardless.

Additionally, as 53% of respondents stated they have an emergency fund, it could be that some of those folks don't feel the need to create a budget. Once bills are paid and incidentals taken care of, they just put what's left over toward an emergency fund, for instance.

Taken together, these points all seem to indicate that consumers are being cautious about spending right now.

Economic uncertainty hasn't exactly led to shoppers burying their cash in a mayonnaise jar in the backyard or hiding it under their mattress, though. While some may be holding off on large purchases, not everyone falls into that category.

In fact, some aren't holding off spending as much as shopping different categories. Between 2018 and 2020, for example, spending on travel and electronics amongst DealNews users decreased 60% and 5.4%, respectively. But we also saw huge increases in other areas. Namely, home-product spending increased by 68% during that 2-year time span, and laptop spending increased by a whopping 134%.

SEE ALSO: What to Buy Every Month of the Year in 2021

We also saw consumer engagement with credit cards decrease. Between 2018 and 2020, there was a 38% decrease in clicks per credit card offer on the site. Additionally, there was a 38% decrease in clicks alone on credit card offers.

This could be due to a couple of reasons, but it's likely related to the economic uncertainty of the time. Perhaps many consumers don't feel confident in trying to obtain new credit cards right now. The lower amount of engagement could also be related to credit histories, and many consumers may not want their credit dinged right now when so much financially seems to be up in the air.

consumer spending infographic

Shoppers Will Spend More on Travel

Last year turned many of us into homebodies, so it should come as no surprise that people are feeling the cabin fever even worse than usual. Even though we're still waiting on the vaccine rollout to reach massive amounts of the population, that hasn't stopped consumers from dreaming of travel in 2021.

Those that responded to our survey said they spend an average of about $3,300 on travel in a normal year. However, last year that dropped to $1,781 on average. As for 2021, it seems consumers are hoping for those getaways to be possible; they're planning to spend almost $4,400 on average this year on travel.

... But Not on Cars and Houses

Spending a decent amount on travel this year might be acceptable, but consumers aren't ready to go big on all their purchases. In fact, 60% of survey respondents have no intention of buying a vehicle this year — and said they'll stick with their current mode of transportation instead. And when it comes to buying a house? Many who aren't looking for new cars aren't ready to upgrade their residences either.

60% of respondents said they'll stick with their current mode of transportation this year.

Of those who said they're sticking with their current mode of transportation, only 18% even noted that they're saving to buy a home at some point. Additionally, 15% stated they're planning to buy their first home in the next five years, so they're not in any hurry either. Altogether, 24% of that "future homebuyer group" said they're doing both — actively saving for a home and planning to buy in the next five years.

It's not just first-time homebuyers either. Of those polled, 41% said they own their current home, but 8% of those folks are still saving for a larger home, and 7% prefer to go the other way and downsize. Plus, 20% of the homeowner group is just planning to renovate their current residence. Clearly, most consumers seem to be delaying these huge purchases, which means they're not in the market for them in 2021.

After a hard year of being stuck at home and having to cancel all kinds of plans — from dinners out, to birthday parties, to holiday gatherings — we were curious to see what survey respondents want out of 2021 the most.

consumer outlook infographic

People Want to Enjoy the Great Outdoors

Of those polled, 53% said they plan to get outside more this year. While activities like hiking, camping, and even bike riding are easy to do on your own, a lot of consumers are missing human interaction. In 2021, we think it's safe to say we're all hoping to be able to get outside and enjoy the fresh air of the great outdoors with friends and family in tow.

Readers, how are you planning to shop differently in 2021? Has the pandemic affected your purchasing behavior? Let us know in the comments below!



Our reporting reflects the results of a nationally representative online survey of 1,161 respondents. Please note that some results may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Full Survey Results

1. Where are you more likely to shop?


36%

64%

2. Beyond day-to-day needs, when do you do most of your shopping?


12%

8%

9%

1%

69%

1%

3. Please indicate whether you agree with the following statements. Select all that apply.


70%

24%

40%

45%

56%

4. Where do you shop online? Select all that apply.


93%

59%

33%

12%

18%

15%

30%

43%

15%

8%

5. Do you have an Amazon Prime membership?


73%

27%

6. How often do you shop on Amazon?


4%

11%

31%

30%

23%

7. Where do you shop for clothing? Select all that apply.


42%

54%

24%

42%

20%

50%

8%

8. In a typical month, how many online purchases do you make?


52%

30%

11%

7%

9. Which of the following statements apply to you?


29%

43%

23%

54%

10. Complete the following sentence. In 2021, I am more likely to...


12%

6%

14%

60%

7%

11. Have you used curbside pickup for restaurants, groceries, or other items?


73%

27%

12. How likely are you to use curbside pickup in the future?


39%

23%

15%

10%

5%

4%

4%

13. Have you had groceries delivered?


44%

56%

14. How likely are you to have groceries delivered in the future?


22%

17%

18%

13%

8%

11%

11%

15. Have you ordered food or restaurant delivery in the past 12 months?


75%

25%

16. How likely are you to have food/meals delivered in the future?


38%

18%

16%

10%

6%

6%

7%

18. When shopping in person, what is your preferred method of payment?


13%

42%

6%

37%

1%

1%

19. When shopping online, what is your preferred method of payment? (Can select more than one answer.)


8%

57%

27%

36%

5%

0%

20. How likely are you to use a credit card to purchase something you couldn't otherwise afford?


14%

13%

17%

11%

10%

12%

24%

21. If an item is on your wish list, do you wait for it to go on sale before you buy it?


76%

24%

22. Select all that apply.


38%

38%

41%

26%

23. If I have extra money beyond my monthly budget, I'm most likely to spend it on…


15%

20%

14%

10%

25%

17%

24. Select all of the following statements that apply to you.


13%

34%

53%

56%

19%

28%

22%

22%

25. Please select any of the following statements that apply to you.


22%

14%

19%

16%

41%

6%

5%

12%

11%

26. How likely is the following statement? I plan to keep a 1-month supply of non-perishable foods, paper goods, and PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) on hand at all times. (Can select more than one answer.)


32%

36%

21%

10%

5%

27. Select all that apply.


53%

30%

38%

8%

28. Age


0%

26%

26%

31%

17%

29. Gender


46%

54%

30. Household income


8%

10%

20%

21%

12%

8%

5%

3%

2%

3%

9%
Senior Staff Writer

Julie joined DealNews in 2015. Her work has been featured on MSN, Business Insider, Lifehacker, The Motley Fool, GoBankingRates, and Moneyish. In her spare time, she enjoys baking sweets, reading thrillers, and listening to an ever-growing list of podcasts.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).

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