I press the checkout button and a familiar giddiness rushes over me. My laptop pings—it’s an email telling me my purchase has been confirmed and will be shipped shortly. The countdown begins.
Among the many aspects of life that the COVID-19 pandemic will change forever, the way we spend our money seems to be one of them; how we spend it, where we spend it, and who we support. One thing has become clear: the pandemic has fueled a significant shift in the way we shop, and these newfound habits are here to stay.
Even before the pandemic, department stores were in a rapid decline. According to Forbes, more than one-fifth of American stores have shut their doors since 2018. In Canada, Hudson’s Bay, colloquially known as The Bay, has found itself unable to pay rent in a number of its stores across the country. Founded in 1670, it is the oldest and longest-surviving company in North America, and yet within the span of ten years, the arrival of the internet and a pandemic threaten its 350-year-long tenure.
Forbes attributes this mass shutdown to three factors: shifting markets, generational changes, and cultural trends. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has threatened the existence of many businesses, while multinational e-commerce one-stop-shop Amazon has capitalized on it, doubling its profits from $2.6 billion in 2019, to $5.2 billion by October 2020. We don’t know what the post-pandemic future will bring, but these numbers are hard to ignore.
Shortly after I make my purchase, I receive an email informing me my package has been shipped and will arrive within ten business days. The hit of dopamine I get from this is the first problem.
With not much else to look forward to these days, this purchase helps to fill a void. To replace my trip to Las Vegas that was canceled, I bought a swimsuit I had been coveting. Although the swimsuit cost more than I’d normally spend, I am comforted by the fact that I’m supporting a small, woman-owned business. Throughout the day, I find myself refreshing the “track your shipment” tab, which allows me to see where my package is at any given point.
Anticipation for the arrival of said package is my second problem.
And I’m not the only one. Sue Pattison-Hames, a 47-year-old mother-of-two, said she had never shopped online before COVID-19. Now, she pairs her nightly glass of wine with an Amazon peruse. Has the pandemic changed her spending habits? “Absolutely,” she said, adding that the biggest factor contributing to this change in habits is stress. “I shop because it makes me feel better,” she said. I can identify with this.
Pattison-Hames is in her fourth year of studies in women and gender at VIU and is gearing up to take her Masters in Counselling after she graduates. The busyness she feels as a mom of two boys, coupled with full-time school, is another reason she has switched to shopping online. It’s convenient and accessible.
In a poll on Instagram, I asked my followers why they would be inclined to shop online rather than in a large department store or a small business—convenience, price point, and accessibility/availability were the top three reasons. Additionally, many are shopping online because they are worried about their health or the health of a loved one.
As a result, many businesses have been forced to adapt as the pandemic threatens their existence. Fortunately, a study by Red Egg Marketing showed that 82 percent of shoppers would rather support a local business than a large corporation and are willing to pay more to support small businesses. I’ve noticed this in my social media bubble and friend circles as well. People are waking up to the importance of supporting their neighbours and keeping money in the local economy.
Emma Simard-Provençal, 20, is in her third year of nursing at VIU. Chair of the university’s Eco Club, she keeps the planet and sustainability in mind when making all of her purchases. Whenever she can, she supports local. “I’m normally looking for eco-friendly things,” she said, “and this is rarely provided by large corporations. As well, I want to support ethical, and I’ve read up on a lot of big businesses with garbage ethical practices—especially Amazon.”
Amazon has faced public scrutiny for issues related to tax avoidance and failure to provide a living wage to its workers, despite being one of the largest and richest corporations in the world.
Simard-Provençal posted an eco-friendly holiday gift guide on the VIU Eco Club’s Instagram and suggested some local businesses where the items could be found. It garnered more follower engagement than any other post the club has made. “So the interest is definitely there,” she said.
A huge part of what attracts me to small businesses is the personal aspect. Many business owners will write handwritten notes on the packages they send, repost photos you tag of their products on social media, and generally create a more interpersonal experience. Simard-Provençal said supporting local is a great way to connect with your community.
“It’s a much more fun experience! You can get to know your local shop owners and they give awesome recommendations. [The items] are typically more ethical and eco-friendly, with things packaged in less plastic, and you are able to see the product before you buy it,” she said.
I am reminded of a quote that went viral a few years ago: “When you buy from a small business, an actual person does a little happy dance.” I can’t imagine an Amazon employee doing the same when you click to purchase.
In these unprecedented times, however, consumers’ newfound dedication to supporting local isn’t solely enough to save small businesses. The nature of the pandemic has ensured that people are staying home and away from crowds, meanwhile lessening their spending or driving them to choose more economically viable options, which is where Amazon and department stores come in. Because of this, Nanaimo’s Chamber of Commerce (NCC) put out a call to action to the city’s residents this past holiday season, stating that local businesses really need our help.
NCC’s Chief Executive Officer Kim Smythe noted in the call to action that, in some retail categories, the holiday season can usually be counted on to deliver half the store’s annual sales to carry it through winter and spring. With the pandemic disrupting this entire system and customers moving to mainly online shopping, “those sales disappeared,” he said, “and the loss couldn’t be recovered or replaced.”
He also explained the vicious cycle one enters when buying online. “[You get] caught up in an online net. I purchased a kitchen faucet online in April, and I am still getting ads for faucets in my inbox. It’s hard to get away from that kind of marketing, so it’s not a surprise that online shopping turns into a habit.”
I feel outed. This is similar to what happened to me with my swimsuit. Although I love it, I don’t need it. But I received an email in my inbox stating they had a sale on, and I—literally—bought into the trap. And now I religiously track my shipment, hoping it will arrive earlier than the website predicts.
The fact that many people have moved to shopping online means that small businesses need to adapt quickly in order to keep up. Andrée Bizer, owner of local Nanaimo bookstore WindowSeat Books, was efficient in setting up her online store when the pandemic hit. She even started delivering to locations around Nanaimo. “I guess I have the right business for these strange times,” she said. But as a small business, Bizer said sometimes people don’t realize that everything happens a little slower. This pace is why people often opt for Amazon or department stores.
The reality is that mass online shopping will continue as long as we’re stuck at home. Laughing, Pattison-Hames said that, in her circle of friends, “it’s this big joke between us that everyone’s addicted to alcohol and Amazon.”
“I used to order the odd thing, and that was only if we couldn’t find it somewhere else. Now the mailman visits me every second day.” As she spoke to me through the phone in her car, she laughed again. “You know what’s funny? I just pulled into my driveway and there are two Amazon boxes sitting at my doorstep.”
By contrast, many people have found that their spending has dropped. In my social media survey, I asked whether people felt they had saved money since the pandemic began. Over half said yes. This is in part due to canceled trips, lack of concerts or hockey games, and less eating or drinking at restaurants and bars. According to Statistics Canada, most surveyed people planned to spend less on non-essential items and services compared to before the pandemic, with the largest number—51 percent—stating they planned to spend less eating out at restaurants once the pandemic is over.
In the transition to post-pandemic life, two things are apparent: online shopping is here to stay, but consumers are prioritizing the need to support local over big corporations. Whether they’ll continue to do so once this is all over remains to be seen. In the meantime, I’ll do my best not to obsessively track my shipments and refrain from stress shopping.