Op-Ed: New Essentials Drive Our New Normal | Coronavirus Series

new essentials coronavirus survey covid-19

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series that explores the impact the coronavirus crisis is having on the world of ecommerce. Explore daily insights surrounding the coronavirus crisis or check out these additional resources to help you navigate your marketing strategy during this time.

Understatement of the decade: COVID-19 has changed our lives. In countless ways, everyone is adjusting. Working from home. Looking for new work as a result of furloughs, rising unemployment and changing economic conditions. Not visiting friends and family. Barely leaving the house. Waiting in line for groceries. The reality of science fiction has, in some ways, become the reality of our day. Welcome to the new normal.

Still, this too shall pass. Our adjustments are temporary, though not instantaneous, and this has practical implications for the ecommerce industry. We’re all in this together. We want you to make the best decision possible for your business, which means you need to understand the current climate for brands.  

Keeping Pulse on the Ecommerce Impact

Ever since the third week of March, we’ve been leveraging our network of more than 30,000 businesses and millions of consumers to better understand COVID-19’s impact on the ecommerce landscape. 

Through a combination of daily consumer and brand polls and in-depth conversations with our customers and partners, we’ve identified new trends and best practices you can use to sustain, and maybe even grow, your business. So what are we seeing, and what should brands do next? Here’s our analysis of the last month and what we think you can expect over the next few weeks.

Consumer spending is actually going up.

With widespread stay-at-home mandates, it’s no surprise that people are shifting from in-store to online shopping. But what about overall spend? 

The conventional feeling is that consumers have stopped spending and all businesses are in trouble. In the last two weeks, though, 62 percent of consumers reported spending the same amount as usual. Across our more than 30,000 customers, sales this week are projected to be up 26 percent since the last week of February.

But what gives? Why are so many businesses in panic if consumers are spending more? While overall spending may be up, some brands are benefitting immensely while others struggle. It depends on what you sell.

New essentials are now a revenue-driver

Most people divide spend into two basic categories: essentials and non-essentials. Essentials represent food, water, paper products, electricity—the basics we need to live our everyday lives at a minimum. Non-essentials are everything else. This is too blunt a picture for today.

The state-government-issued mandates to stay at home have forced a new environment on people. As a result, their priorities and needs have changed. This has yielded a third category of spending: new essentials. These are any items that fall under the office supplies, health and fitness, beauty and cosmetics, housewares, home improvement, and toys and hobbies categories—items that help you feel more comfortable at home. Anything that’s not an essential or new essential is considered to be a non-essential.

People are now spending 14 hours awake at home each day instead of six. This is what’s driving new essential spending. New essentials make up nearly 40 percent of sales among consumers.

Consumers are demanding new essentials

We introduced a consumer poll to match intent with data. Both the consumer and ecommerce polls support the rise of new essential spending. Through our consumers poll, we’re able to track just how much people are spending on each new essential category. 

The following table represents data captured from March 23rd to April 2nd of this year:

Reported spending on
Office supplies 28%
Health and fitness 29%
Housewares 26%
Home improvement 24%
Beauty and cosemtics 30%
Toys and hobbies 29%

Why are items in this category in such high demand? Our consumers weighed in.

Office Supplies: We saw a spike in spending on office supplies as people at home needed to set up their environment to be as productive as possible. When asked what they planned on buying, one survey participant shared, “Maybe a keyboard and laptop stand to improve the ergonomics of my home workstation. I don’t know how long I’ll have to work from home, and my body already feels more achy than usual.”

Health and Fitness: Now that gyms are closed and we’re living a more sedentary lifestyle, people want to stay healthy. Buying sporting goods, supplements, fitness classes, and at-home exercise equipment, people are willing to spend the money to keep their bodies and minds in shape.

Beauty and Cosmetics: Part of feeling human is maintaining normalcy. For some respondents, keeping daily routines keeps them from falling into a slump. As one consumer indicated, “Since primarily staying in my house, my skincare routine and makeup in the morning is a nice activity to help maintain some structure. It’s also helped my mind get into the work mode and separate my work activities [from] my living activities at home.” These habits matter to consumers, leading them to replenish their beauty staples and explore new cosmetics.  

Housewares: Cooking more? You’re not alone. People are upgrading their pots and pans, knives and cutlery, and prep goods. New recipes are being explored and meal kit subscriptions are soaring. Food is a way to explore and unwind and, with so much stress and time at home, people are taking advantage.

Home Improvement: Homeowners who now have more free time on their hands are starting to tackle that “honey-do” list. Those loose doorknobs, unspackled walls, and yet-to-be-decorated basements are finally getting the TLC they deserve. Some people are even seeking refuge in the great outdoors. One respondent reported, “I want to take advantage of working remotely by making home improvements and doing gardening. I think it will elevate my mood, make me feel creative and productive.”

Toys and Hobbies: There are only so many episodes of Tiger King you can watch to keep sane. What do you do when the Netflix queue runs out? And how do you keep the kids occupied without sitting them in front of the screen 24/7? For some, the answer is simple—buy toys and hobby items. Stress relievers, model planes, train sets, and arts and crafts. They’re all fair game. One respondent noted that they plan on ordering a puzzle to help pass the time.

Firearms: Although we’re not tracking firearms as a category of consumer spending, a crisis increases gun sales, and today is no exception. People are buying guns and ammunition. And they are flying off the shelves.

Consumers plan to favor new essentials in their future purchases

While we initially saw a spending boom as the impact of COVID-19 hit home, recent poll results suggest that spending may soon decline. More than 40 percent of people reported spending more than usual over the past two weeks, but only about 20 percent anticipate spending more than usual over the next two weeks. On the other hand, while 37 percent percent of people reported spending less than usual over the last two weeks, half of respondents expect to spend less than usual over the next two weeks.

But there’s a bright side here. Even people who plan to spend less than usual are still planning on buying new essentials. Across every spending level, people plan to buy these more than products across other categories, excluding food. In short, new essentials are here to stay.

Consumers may be starting to move away from Amazon

Early reports suggest a new trend could be emerging, and consumers may be starting to favor independent brands over Amazon. Four days ago, 89 percent of respondents said they were shopping on Amazon and 32 percent said they were shopping at independent retailers. As of April 1st, only 77 percent said they were shopping on Amazon while the number of people shopping at independent retailers increased to 39 percent. 

We’ll continue to keep an eye on these numbers to see if this trend grows as Amazon shipping delays and concerns about worker treatment continue.

Why Maslow Could Have Predicted This Change in Consumer Behavior

Famed psychologist, Abraham Maslow, defined the Hierarchy of Needs—his theory on what people prioritize in life and why. We believe this hierarchy will dictate the order of who buys what. And so far, this model is playing out.

Physiological and safety needs

When people all over the world started self-quarantining, individuals realized that their daily environments, and needs, would change.

People immediately fled to stores to buy what they thought they needed: food, paper products, cleaning supplies, firearms, hand sanitizer—I admit that I bought four more boxes of pasta than I needed or frankly wanted. 

Mapping this to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this directly corresponds to physiological and safety needs. With everything in flux, people worried they wouldn’t have their most basic needs met. It was a shock to the system. So as long as they could afford to, they spent. And it came in waves.

Belongingness and love needs

Immediately following, it seemed that everyone turned to Zoom—and not just for work. People were finding new ways to connect, holding virtual happy hours, game nights, and the like. 

This supports Maslow’s belongingness and love needs stage. Some are turning to companions of the furry variety. Yes, we’ve even heard reports of people planning to buy a new pet and are seeing an increase in spending on pet supplies. 

Esteem needs

As people felt more connected, they turned to self-care purchases to invest in their well-being. We’ve been seeing a corresponding increase in beauty and cosmetics, as well as health and fitness sales. Why? People want to feel good about themselves. They’re keeping up with their daily routines and exercising so they feel healthy and in control. This directly corresponds to esteem needs in Maslow’s hierarchy.


The last phase in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is self-actualization, or the need for self-fulfillment. As the reality of feeling stuck at home sunk in, many explored new ways to pass the time and indulge their creative impulses. 

Some sought arts and crafts for self-expression. Others put their chef or construction hats on, cooking up new recipes and fixing odds and ends around the house. This is why we saw an increase in spending on toys and hobbies, housewares, and home improvement. 

Where Do We Go from Here?

First, a synopsis of consumer spending during the first wave of stay-at-home life:

3/15–3/27: People bought essentials, some new essentials, and few non-essentials. During this period, people were buying things they needed to make them feel safe and secure in their new environments. This was defined by higher than average increases in household items, food, alcohol, office supplies, and cleaning products. Consumers buying online largely found what they were looking for through search.

Our prediction for consumer behavior in the upcoming weeks:

3/27–4/17: People will buy fewer essentials, more new essentials, and some non-essentials. Once people feel safe and secure, spending will move towards items that help them feel loved and accomplished. This will be defined by higher than average increases in fitness gear and beauty and cosmetics. We’ll see early signs of consumers spending on items that distract them, let them try new things, or keep them happy. Consumers will largely find what they’re looking for through search, brands they already know and love, and promotions sent to them from friends.

4/18–5/22: People will buy some essentials, lots of new essentials, and more non-essentials.

People will feel increasingly bored and stuck inside. Spending on toys, games, puzzles, home decor, plants, and even new pets will increase. They will work on home improvement projects and buy those items they’d been eyeing for a while but never let themselves have, like state-of-the-art flatscreens or new leather sectionals. Consumers will look for new inspiration and will return to social media as a method of brand discovery.

We’ll also see seasonal changes in purchases. As the weather warms up in certain parts of the world, people will look to update their quarantine wardrobe to something more temperature-appropriate. In that case, fashion and apparel brands that cater to this will see a bump in sales. Those that sell athletic wear or leisure clothing ideal for stay-at-home life are already experiencing gains. Of the apparel and accessories brands that reported increased sales as of March 30th, 90 percent sold this type of clothing. 

5/22–undefined: People will buy some essentials, some new essentials and some non-essentials. At this point, people will be tapped out and ready to get out of their houses.

Our predictions for who will succeed 

Selling products from an in-demand category is not a guarantee for growth. If you don’t sell any new essentials and you’re worried about the fate of your business, it doesn’t mean certain doom for your business. Conversely, if you do sell new essentials, don’t bank on your products alone to win the hearts and wallets of consumers. 

Brands that offer a unique product, with a well-optimized funnel and a message that empathizes with people’s current living conditions will thrive. By offering something people want, positioning it as something people need now, and running an efficient business, you can emerge from this crisis with stronger customer relationships. Don’t underestimate the power of these relationships. A strong customer relationship is crucial to maintain, especially as consumers face shipping delays and more brands compete for their business.

Unfortunately, this is a time where businesses might not make it. Those that ran inefficient operations or who lose more money on ads than they make will have difficulty. Also on the list? Drop shippers who’ll have problems securing inventory, and new brands without established customer bases that will struggle to get discovered.

What’s working, and what you can do next

From our countless conversations with customers, we’ve identified several successful ways to communicate with your community in uncertain times. The following are just a handful of strategies helping to boost engagement and sales across ecommerce categories.

1 | Highlight ways you plan to give back

A recognized name within the fitness community, Nuun sent 500 free care packages to medical professionals across the United States and promoted this cause in a recent email campaign. Are you helping your community in a similar way? Not every business can afford to do this, but if you can give back in some form, sharing your commitment to social causes is a great way to showcase the humanity of your brand.

2 | Communicate shipping expectations 

Baked by Melissa, a cupcake bakery, updated their website to let their customers know that their shipping hasn’t been affected and that customers can still place and receive orders as usual. Note how this update lives on their homepage. When it comes to setting any kind of expectation with your customers, reinforce this message across your marketing channels. 

3 | Foster community across social channels and through livestream events

Yaymaker, an events company formerly known as Paint Nite, turned their in-person events into virtual events that people can access from their computers while at home. People can choose from many online events at varying price points, and they even let you know what materials you need to prepare. This is a great way for Yaymaker’s customers to continue to creatively entertain themselves, their kids, and their teams while at home.

4 | Engage your audience

NOBULL is a footwear, apparel, and accessory brand. Knowing that people are confined to their homes, they encouraged their community to submit their home workout of the day, helping keep people motivated and in control of their fitness. 

How are you using social media to connect with your audience? If you’re not sure where to start, pose a question. Ask how you can improve your products and customer experience to make their lives easier during this time. Direct feedback feeds some of the most memorable marketing and product moments. Just make sure you engage in the conversation and translate that exchange into action.

5 | Adjust your email editorial calendar to share more relevant content 

Marine Layer, a men’s and women’s apparel company, acknowledged their customers’ needs for comfortable, stay-at-home attire in a series of emails promoting their loungewear collection. If you haven’t revised your editorial calendar, make that your next to-do. Consider how best you can use each send to empathize with the challenges and concerns your customers face. And don’t just think at the product-level. Be there for your community beyond the transaction.

6 | Use onsite forms and back-in-stock automations to fulfill consumer demand for new and returning visitors

Who Gives a Crap, a toilet paper brand, used a punny pop-up form to communicate that they’ve sold out of their product. They also use the form as an opportunity to collect email addresses and build their email list with high-intent shoppers who will be the first to know when their products are back in stock.

Back-in-stock automations are effective when you don’t or won’t have the inventory available to support demand. Since customers are notified in real-time when the item they tried to buy is made available again, you’re able to provide transparency, gauge intent, and give shoppers peace of mind. See how Who Gives a Crap completes this customer experience with an engaging automated email below, and find out more about how they’re approaching customer acquisition and retention during this time.

Final Thoughts

These are unprecedented times, and no one knows how long the COVID-19 quarantine will last. While we can’t give you a blueprint for exactly how to run your business, we remain committed to helping you navigate this new normal. We will continue to provide the information, insights, and resources you need to make educated and sound business decisions. Otherwise, start with your customers and work backwards. That always works for us.

Keep checking back at our COVID-19 insights page for the latest results of our brand and consumer surveys, as well as effective marketing moments.

For more marketing best practices, head on over to our COVID-19 resources page, where you’ll find guides, blog posts, and other content designed to help you grow. 

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