The Psychology of Pandemic-Induced Shopping Behaviors

By Swaroop Reddy | Chief Information Officer

It would be short-sighted to believe humans would be unaffected by evolution. Adaptation has kept species going for millennia. Humans have adapted mental attributes to keep fit for survival, and one such attribute is our fear of death.

Logically, we know all humans die. Yet, somehow, reminders of our own mortality (i.e., mortality salience) trigger dramatic behavioral change. To go about our day-to-day lives, humans have evolved to “deal” with reminders of our impending death.

This defense mechanism is known as terror management theory (TMT). It dictates that any death reminder will initiate a spectrum of behaviors designed to protect and uplift our sense of self. And these adaptations include changes in purchasing behavior, too.

Behavior changes when mortality is made salient

First, there’s the rise-above response. When humans face threats, we try to put ourselves in a position of superiority. We’re more inclined to fund and support social causes, work to improve ourselves or attempt to elevate ourselves by becoming more attuned to spirituality or religion.

Then, there’s the instant gratification response. We invest in things that give us an immediate sense of self-worth. If we want to buy a car, we eye the one that’s just out of reach. If we want to buy a house, we sacrifice more to afford a larger down payment. Even if we’re buying tuna, we reach for the fanciest can on the shelf. It all depends on our construct of achievement.

When marketers see these trends, they attribute them to a short-lived response to a situation. That’s because our data on TMT was previously generated by inducing mortality awareness through short-lived tactics, such as a video or funeral.

But what if the exposure-inducing mortality salience was ongoing?

When mortality reminders are consistent enough, they have the power to fundamentally change consumer behavior for years to come. And what better reminder than a deadly multiyear pandemic?

The impact of COVID-19

Humans’ sense of mortality transcends culture, religion, age, etc. With this in mind, companies must alter their marketing messages to account for the value changes consumers have experienced over the past two years. These are sustained behavioral changes that can (and will) impact a company’s growth strategy.

For example, a colleague of mine recently posited that all brands are now health-and-wellness brands. This is clearly a result of the rush to sanitize and support people suffering from the pandemic’s social and physical challenges.

However, this evolution is also significantly influenced by global shifts in value perception and consumer psychological responses to mortal threats. For instance, one study found a dramatic increase in charitable giving in countries with heightened COVID-19 awareness.

Another interesting example is the surge in luxury sales during the pandemic. In January 2022, Cartier reported a 32% increase in sales during the fourth quarter of 2021 compared with the final three months of 2020. Prada earned 8% more in 2021 than it did in 2019, and Louis Vuitton, Dior and BMW all boasted higher-than-expected 2021 sales.

It’s only just begun

Researchers and marketers don’t yet know how TMT principles will continue to shape purchasing behavior and influence companies’ future approach to data and technology. However, if marketers follow the constructions of behavioral economic theorists like Dan Ariely, they’ll likely see a “self-herding effect” after the pandemic.

Ariely describes self-herding as the “tendency to follow the same decision we have made in the past, with future decisions influenced by previous decisions.”

What can marketers and consumers learn from this? In short, the pandemic will eventually end, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the behaviors we’ve adopted will end with it. Marketers can’t expect a rapid return to “business as usual” because human psychology has been irrevocably impacted.

The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to impact how humans perceive reality. But unlike two years ago, marketers now have the research and data to understand it. They just have to start applying those insights.

Swaroop Reddy

Chief Information Officer

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