As the pandemic took hold, consumers took up new habits, and forcibly had to drop others.

Many turned to baking banana bread, some focused on building islands in Animal Crossing, while others spent more time on their hobbies. Takeouts increased as dining out tanked. Demand for online shopping went through the roof, and many started to panic buy. 

People had to pivot away from aspects of their lives they would have once taken for granted. 

But as vaccines are rolled out and the world finds its footing again, what kind of behaviors or trends will hold strong? 

We’ve analyzed data from our various research studies to uncover the most pervasive, long-lasting trends that will continue to have a profound impact on consumers’ behaviors, and in turn, what’s expected from brands. 

The importance of mental health really can’t be underestimated.

The impact on mental health due to the pandemic was largely overlooked last year. Naturally, the main focus at the time was on fighting the virus and getting access to vaccines. And while we’ve made great strides on this front, the mental health crisis is only worsening. 

The real impact on mental health is becoming clearer, and calls for action are becoming louder. 

Research in the UK recently found alarming figures about the mental health crisis among both children and adults, which has reached an all-time high. An already over-run health service risks struggling to manage the sheer volume of people needing support. Meanwhile, a recent U.S. study found that 1 in 3 people who were severely ill with the virus were diagnosed with a neurological or psychiatric condition within 6 months of infection. 

Our GWI USA data sheds light on the rise of anxiety in the past year. Across all generations, feelings of anxiety have ticked upward. Younger generations are most impacted, but even among Gen X there’s been a 17% increase during this time.

Mothers with young children also struggle more with anxiety overall – which we know is an issue – but over time their anxiety has actually declined. For fathers of young children, their anxiety has grown by 38%. 

There’s further evidence of the impact on mental health in our March Zeitgeist data, where 30% of Gen Z and millennials in the U.S. said they feel the pandemic will have a long-term negative impact on their mental health. 

They were also more likely to say the pandemic would negatively impact their career success and education, which in turn only increases stress and anxiety. Lower earners are also disproportionately affected – 42% of low-income earners in the U.S. said the pandemic has made their mental health worse compared to 34% of high earners.

The good news is that openness to discussing mental health has also grown across generations in the U.S. But the reality is that many different groups are struggling, and they need support. This is where brands can step up. 

In our Connecting the dots report, we covered the different ways consumers tried to support their mental health. Many turned to calming music and TV to relax, and we’ve seen different media companies jump in. 

In January, Netflix launched Headspace’s Guide to Meditation, with its new Guide to Sleep also being released in April. While Google recently announced that it plans to collaborate with Headspace on a new mindfulness resource for kids. 

Given the growth of TV subscription services, these companies are in prime position to have a positive impact. And it stands to pay off too; close to half of U.S. consumers said that a brand showing support to people during the pandemic influences their purchase decisions. 

Healthier habits hold strong as consumers take control of their physical wellbeing.

Physical wellness has also understandably become more of a focus for consumers during this time. Many people feel vulnerable and worried about their health, so focusing on habits like healthier eating or exercising more likely helps consumers feel more confident and in control of their lives, even when everything else might feel uncertain.

A new study also found that people who exercised more before catching COVID-19 were less likely to fall seriously ill than those who didn’t. Exercise and healthier eating also has the added benefits of improving mental wellbeing, so it’s a win-win. 

In our Zeitgeist research from March, we asked U.S./UK consumers what behaviors they started doing more of at the beginning of the pandemic and what they’re still doing more of now. Exercising more and eating healthier are two of the most long-lasting behaviors across generations, and particularly for lower earners as well. As other habits started to fade away, healthier habits stood strong – showing that this isn’t just a “lockdown phase”. 

Generally, older generations were more likely to continue doing the majority of behaviors/activities tracked than younger generations, showing how tricky it can be to keep younger consumers engaged. 

Increases in workouts at home and decreases in going to the gym are evident in our GWI USA data from Q2 2020 to Q1 2021. Even as many gyms reopened in the U.S., there’s been little uptick – perhaps because of the cost-benefit of home workouts and outdoor exercise. 

During this timeframe purchases of sports clothing and sneakers also increased. Millennials and Gen X, in particular, are driving these purchase trends. For example, 20% of Gen X in Q1 2021 said they purchase sneakers at least once every 2-3 months, up from 13% in Q2 2020. 

The top sports brands millennials are buying more of compared to last year are Adidas and Nike, while for Gen X it’s Adidas. Usage of Nike+ also increased significantly, jumping from 14% to 22% among millennials. 

Nike helped more people workout last year by making its premium version of its Nike Training Club app free for all U.S. consumers. This effort resulted in increased online sales for the brand. At the same time, the brand launched its campaign telling people to “Play Inside and Play for the World” – messaging that was largely applauded. This shows how positive actions that help consumers stand to pay off in the long run, both commercially but also for positive brand sentiment. 

Physical fitness aside, consumers are also becoming more mindful of what they put into their bodies. 

The portion of consumers who say they’re trying to eat healthier in the U.S. has increased from 56% in Q2 2020 to 60% in Q1 2021. 

Using alternative and complementary treatments like acupuncture or homeopathy has also jumped up significantly for millennials and Gen X. The trend of looking after our physical health shows no signs of going anywhere – brands that can best support consumers on their health journey stand to benefit the most. 

Online shopping continues to grow, while social becomes ever-important in the purchase journey.

In our COVID-19 research last year, the portion of consumers across 15 countries who said they planned to shop online more frequently once the outbreak is over grew from 43% in April to 49% in July. This trend has held strong over the past year. In our March Zeitgeist research, 76% of consumers in the U.S./UK said they’re still doing more shopping online compared to before the pandemic. 

Our GWI USA data really shows the scale of growth in online shopping over the past year. Visiting ecommerce sites, retailer sites, and purchasing products online have all seen significant increases across all generations, with the exception of Gen Z for purchasing products online. This is likely due to the fact many in this audience have been hit harder financially by the pandemic, while older generations tend to have more disposable income. 

This more financially-conscious mindset is also clear in how they research brands. The portion of Gen Zs using discount voucher/coupon sites to find out more information about brands has increased from 17% in 2019 to 20% in 2020.

When trying to understand the growth of online shopping and its impact on future behavior, the most helpful example to use is groceries. It’s a high-frequency category that everyone needs, yet during the pandemic many people were unable to go to stores or simply didn’t want to due to safety concerns. Online shopping for staples like this became a lifeline for many people. 

In our Core data, shopping for groceries online increased across all world regions between Q4 2019 and Q4 2020. Growth varied by region, with the biggest growth coming from North America. Europe as a region sees smaller growth, but this varies notably by country. For example, in the UK online grocery shopping jumped up from 25% to 33% during this timeframe. 

For the UK’s largest supermarkets, online grocery is now almost as profitable as shopping in-store for the first time – a huge milestone. UK retailer, Ocado, also credited much of its growth last year to a surge in grocery purchases. 

By generation, online grocery shopping has grown across the board, but the biggest increase overall has come from baby boomers with 19% growth during this period.

With more consumers shopping online for high-frequency products like groceries, it helps to increase comfort and familiarity with online shopping for other categories of products. The convenience aspect of online shopping is also a massive benefit, especially in an increasingly safety-conscious and hygiene-aware world – which isn’t going to disappear anytime soon.

Retailers of all kinds had to pivot their sales channels and focus on creating or developing their online capabilities when the pandemic hit – this isn’t just a COVID-19 phenomenon. 

At the same time, consumers are turning more to social networks for product research (up from 42% in Q1 2020 to 45% in Q4 2020). Consumers’ increased dependence on social media for information strengthens social’s role in the purchase journey, and will inevitably lead to more touchpoints for online purchases going forward. 

Habits and behaviors will no doubt change even further, but we’re confident these trends will continue to have a lasting impact on consumers’ daily lives. Online shopping and the desire to maintain healthier lifestyles presents an abundance of opportunities for all kinds of brands to reach consumers in ways we know matter to them. 

But we simply can’t ignore the problem of mental health, and its enduring effects long after we come out the other side. Addressing mental health problems with greater sensitivity and compassion, both from brands and employers, is an absolute must. 

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Written by

Katie is a Senior Trends Manager at GWI. She’s an avid baker and Harry Potter fanatic, who loves to binge-watch all the latest shows. When she’s not busy whipping up a cheesecake or watching murder-mysteries, you’ll find her exploring what makes consumers tick.

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