Beyond The Toilet Paper: How America Shopped During Covid-19 And Its Various Stages

Working with a US-based ecommerce startup for some time now, I have had a ringside view of shopping patterns of the American buyers. Our warehouse is located in a Chicago suburb where over 2000 SKUs await orders, and are packed and shipped by a workforce of ten. We sell everything but the kitchen sink. Actually, even that. From small battery operated gadgets to help you froth your coffee, clean your dishes, massage your pet or high-end items like barbecue grills, crystal jewelry and ergonomic furniture, we are a little bit of everything store. 

With the onset of the deadly Corona virus, and its effects on businesses around the world, my fascination with consumer behaviour had taken a new paradigm. Watching the ‘orders’ page of our online store became an exercise in studying the American psyche. Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen with part delight, and part discomfort, capitalism play out in the face of a fast-escalating health crisis in the most powerful country on earth.

What’s even more fascinating is how the shopping behaviour changed with every phase of Corona virus. 

Phase 1 – Corona Awareness sets in, so does stockpiling and panic buying 

As the US customers spilled onto the supermarkets, pharmacies and grocery stores stockpiling on toilet paper – for a reason lost on me – and other items they deemed essential should the world be ending, an unassuming item from our store was quickly selling by the dozens a day. A “Large Reusable Sectioned Supermarket Cart Bag” (I’d come up with the title) that folds into itself like an accordion and has 4 sections to divide your groceries, an item we had procured in a distress sale by the thousands and was sitting mostly idle for a couple of years was cleared in a matter of a week. Funnily, when we first noticed an uptick in the sales of the said shopping bag, the Corona Virus was still at the stage where Trump brushed aside its seriousness while elsewhere in the world it had begun to wreak havoc. It only took us a couple of days to connect the dots. People were panic buying at still-functional offline stores and the first step to facilitate the hoardings was a good, large, solid shopping cart bag.

covid and ecommerce



If I’ve learnt anything about American buying habits, especially among a certain demographic, it’s that Americans love their homes clean, adequately humidified, and sanitized as would make a hospital proud. Now my company doesn’t sell toilet rolls or sanitizers, but we do stock a lot of tertiary cleaning products. Clean hands and dry bums wasn’t enough to keep the dastardly virus at bay. The buyers didn’t want to leave any touchpoint vulnerable enough to attract an infection. The urgency attached with practicing hygiene, started reflecting in the products we were now selling in bulk.

Vacuum cleaners, silicone sponge brushes, extendable mops, lint and pet fur remover, you name it. If it cleaned it, they bought it. 

Phase 3: Lockdown: Work and chill from home

At this point, most people had started to work from home. Temporary and contractual workforce and freelancers had no option but to be at home. This phase was characterised by buying of items that would aid one to work from home comfortably. Enter ergonomic desks, desktop height-raise stands, work-cum-breakfast tables. An orthopedic memory foam cushion – an item we almost cleared off at a distress sale for less than $1 a pop just a few weeks ago – ended up becoming a hotseller even at a $10 retail. People bought things that replicated their office atmosphere, with all its ergonomics. The pet dog at home being a bonus. This phase also made people appreciate the need for a good set of headphones, selfie sticks, phone holders and even bluetooth speakers to amp up those conference calls or for playing that NSFW track in the background. As luck would have it, electronic gadgets are something we had been stocking very little of due to a slew of regulatory and custom hurdles, but whatever few we did have in stock were gone in a few days. The third party platforms we sell on started noticing the shifts in buying and duly started promoting deals in those verticals a little more aggressively more than before, with special “Top 50 products to help you work from home” calls-to-action, no less.

Phase 4: Domestic dominance

Safe to say, this is the stage that made me smile the most looking at our orders everyday. As the panic buying started stabilising, and stockpiling of food and other goods carried on at other online stores, my store started seeing a surge of items that I call “Kumbaya shopping”. If you’ve been around the internet a lot of late, and how could you not, you’d notice a lot of well-meaning messages on the line of following your passions now that you have the time; to learn to cook, do gardening, sketch, paint. However, passion projects turn into a shopping list if you’re capitalistic enough. If you haven’t cracked open an egg in your life, and now want to whip up a feast for your family, what do you need? Well, a mandoline 9-in-1 chopper-grater-shredder of course. Dalgona coffee is all the rage on Tiktok, but who has the forearm strength to beat a coffee for a good 20-30 minutes? A $5 electric froth maker to the rescue! Bored out of your wits and Netflix has been saturated, how about some adult sketch books? We sold it all. For all my earlier skepticism, I for one had never been happier about stocking the most random, eclectic assortment of goods in my entire tenure with the said company.

In an almost part poetic, part pyrrhic sort of way, my little ecommerce company saw the best sales it had in a single month – including Thanksgiving – during the onset of the Pandemic. The irony didn’t stop when one realised that a virus that originated in China, was now making my company that depended on the country for 95% of its products, was profiting from it. In every situation, there are winners and losers. For the time being we were the winners. However, in this case things definitely got better before they got worse. The ‘Corona surge’ in sales didn’t last long enough, and my unintended study in American buying psychology was callously aborted as we had to suspend operations last week. At first it was due to the warehouse staff’s (justified) paranoia about coming into work, and secondly by an enforced lockdown of the city that only allowed delivery of essential goods and services. If the powers-that-be had observed, like I had, what products were flying off our shelves, they’d know they were as essential as it gets.

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