The novel coronavirus continues to sweep the world, impacting people’s health, livelihood and general way of life in sudden and unexpected ways. As people — my family among them — continue to adjust to today’s quarantine economy, channels and options that formerly seemed like digital convenience are now a necessity. While we’re still in need of rapid responses from health and government organizations, we also need brands, grocers, restaurants and other retailers to meet us where we are.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen consumer behavior shift sparked by a crisis. The SARS “black swan”1 — an improbable and rare event with extreme impact — essentially accelerated Alibaba’s consumer ecommerce business due to an unforeseen need for ecommerce delivery. Within two years of its launch, the company’s Taobao marketplace eclipsed eBay as the country’s top C2C platform.2 Now Alibaba is considered one of the most influential ecommerce companies in the world. 

Increased reliance on delivery and pickup

As coronavirus continues to evolve and shift our behavior, consumers have moved away from physical store shopping to online delivery and curbside pick-up options. At the height of the outbreak in China, vegetable deliveries jumped by 600% year over year.3 And an online retailer reported a 215% increase year over year in online grocery sales. In the United States, Instacart subscriptions have grown by 10 times — 20 times in states with the most reported cases.4 The company recently rolled out a “non-contact” delivery option across North America in response to consumer demand.5 Millennials especially admit that the virus has completely changed the way they’re thinking about shopping, with 30 percent saying they’re shopping more online and 39 percent saying they’re shopping less often in stores.

People need retailer guidance and reassurance

As we see in the news and have experienced first-hand, grocery stores are facing all-time high demands, leading to delays in delivery and curbside pickup. As these delays continue, retailers can alleviate consumer fear and panic buying by addressing this growing demand and offering transparent communication as soon as possible.

Amongst all the chaos, people still need to feel like they have immediate access to essentials such as food, toilet paper, baby supplies and more. For retailers, this means focusing on operational capacity uptick as well as social distancing measures while still helping consumers in the way they need.

As people’s daily routines continue to change, so has the way they consume media, engage in social media, and use online search. Instead of driving to a favorite store, many more now search online, use apps, shop at new stores and rely on delivery and curbside pickup. This means customers need more digital engagement. One step is to shift messaging efforts to digital, and to rethink media and promotional approaches to both online search and social media.

Help people find what they need

To reduce panic and anxiety, people need the comfort of easily finding what they’re looking for and the knowledge that it’s readily available for purchase. This means predicting shortages and demand trends in order to tailor catalogs by location; implementing advanced website search capabilities; improving product descriptions for better discoverability; introducing one click shopping; and allowing insight into inventory and delivery scheduling. The digital product shelf could be refreshed with key product information including features, ingredients, imagery and more in order to be as good — or better than — the physical shelf. By making sure customers can quickly identify necessary products, we can help reduce anxiety.

Even as we adjust to life with COVID-19, consumers still need help finding how they will physically receive their purchases faster and with greater ease. To adapt the shopping experience to a world of social distancing, retailers should increase alternative methods of delivery — traditional delivery, no-contact delivery, curbside and in-store pickup. Providing clear guidance around “how” each of these methods work and ensuring that signup, specifically for curbside, is highly streamlined will also ease customer’s stress. Transparency and consistency in messaging will help manage customer expectations and provide the comfort of certainty in an uncertain time.

To help businesses navigate through this climate, we have put together multi-disciplinary SWAT teams that understand this pivotal moment for retailers. We are here for you, just like you will be there for customers.


  1. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan, 2007
  2. Ker Zheng, “How SARS Contributed to the Birth of China Ecommerce,” February 5, 2020
  3. Man-Chung Cheung, “Coronavirus’ Impact on Consumers and Businesses in China,” February 26, 2020
  4. Tobie Stanger, “How to Protect Yourself from Coronavirus When Grocery Shopping,” March 9, 2020
  5. Michael Browne and Nancy Luna, “As Coronavirus Fears Grow, Delivery Operators Offer Contactless Options,” March 9, 2020

Heather Hildebrand

Managing Director & Consumer Business Lead – Accenture Interactive​​

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