NEW YORK – Between technical glitches and food worries, retail therapy and sheer amnesia, something has happened to shopping during the pandemic that can be summed up thusly: rubber chickens.
Melissa Jean Footlick bought some while sheltering at home in San Diego with her husband and three dogs. She's a kidney transplant patient so she's been taking extra care. She's among millions who have helped online retail sales surge as consumer spending fell off rapidly when businesses shut down.
“I spent two hours trying to find a Funfetti cake mix and frosting. No reason, I just wanted it. I also got a game where you throw rubber chickens at a target. I misread the description and thought it was like badminton with rubber chickens,” she explained.
Said husband and dogs have yet to agree to a game.
For others, shopping madness has been about the essentials, only super-sized: 10-pound bags of rice; 25-pound sacks of flour; 50 pounds worth of sugar; pickles and pancake mix for a crowd.
For some, it's impulse shoe purchases, with nowhere to go. And mistaken multiple pounds of blueberries when a single container was the goal.
Remember the toilet paper scare? George Pav found some in an unlikely place in Berlin, Germany.
“When the mayor of Berlin announced the lockdown, I knew that I wouldn’t have the chance to drink a cup of coffee from a cafe for quite some time. My first thought was to find a cafe and enjoy an espresso. Alas, most of them were already shut,” he recalled.
He ventured into one, but a woman there said they were closed.
"No coffee. Then I looked behind her. There was a pile of toilet paper. She said she was selling them for 50 cents per piece,'' Pav said.
He bought four squares.
For Beth Wilson of New York, it was a bistro table and chairs to match the ones at a Paris cafe where she and her husband “ate every morning for breakfast on our honeymoon.” The chairs, she said, look great, “but the table came broken.”
The panic buying, the over-buying, the emotional buying aren't unique to this extraordinary world-shaking event, but it's the kind of world-shaking event that sent the world home with plenty of anxiety and few shopping options other than the online kind.
In the U.S., retail sales tumbled by a record 16.4% from March to April as business shutdowns caused by the coronavirus kept shoppers away, threatened stores and weighed down a tanking economy. The Commerce Department reported that a long-standing migration toward online purchases accelerated, posting an 8.4% monthly gain.
Measured year over year, online sales surged 21.6%.
“It's panic on lots of levels,” said Wendy Liebmann, CEO of WSL Strategic Retail, a global consulting firm specializing in retail strategy and shopper insights. “All of the traditional buying patterns are tossed up in the air.”
She called it “shopping chaos” with no anchors. And the chaos has come with some unique calculus.
One couple got to skip their last preschool payment due to lockdown and purchased the couch of their dreams. The refund on their son's lunch program bought a matching ottoman. Christine Alonzo Carlisle, 45, was awash in refunds in Carmel, Indiana, where she's sheltering with her husband and two teenage daughters.
“My big family spring break trip, that I’d spent a year planning, was canceled and refunded. All of my kids' summer camps were refunded. Concerts were refunded. Club sports were refunded. Random refunds were just popping up like crazy on my credit card account,” she said.
“Then, I got an email that the super fancy European coffee machine I’d been dreaming of was on sale. Still ridiculous, but a pretty good sale. So I bought it. I had a moment of buyer’s regret, and then I had a perfectly brewed cappuccino, or 10, and instantly felt better,” Carlisle added.
That “instant” feeling is key to much of the coronavirus shopping, said Jeff Galak, associate professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.
“Shopping as therapy has been shown to reduce negative moods and boost overall happiness," he said. “The big downside, however, is that such relief is very short-lived. That good feeling very quickly dissipates.”
Galak said some research points to “shopping while bored” as a variation with less emotional payout.
“Browsing for things that one doesn’t need fills the time and then clicking `buy now' just naturally follows,” he said. “Consumers may find themselves on page 20 of a search result for a new pair of shoes, a place that when engaged and not bored, they would never reach.”
Jennifer Salgado, 42, in Bloomfield, New Jersey, is a shopper with many heads these days.
“Resourceful me has purchased a pasta roller and drying rack, because now I’m Ina Garten, stuff to make hand sanitizer, because I’m now a chemist, and dog nail clippers that my 76-pound bulldog noped out of real fast and is now looking like Snookie from `The Jersey Shore,'" she said.
There's also “luxurious me," Salgado said, snapping up 96 macarons from a bulk-buying store, along with the Jennifer who needed 24 pounds of frozen peas.
“Most of the time, I forget what’s coming,” she said, echoing others who accepted long delivery dates out of fear. “And most of the time, I realize I never really needed these things in the first place.”
Kellie Flor-Robinson in Silver Spring, Maryland, just may be a combination of all of the above.
“I ordered a case of Moet,” she said. “I’m not sure that it was an accident, though. This thing has me buggy.”