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For some businesses that are enjoying increased sales from stay-at-home workers and families, the immediate, if perhaps surprising, explanation is the effects of COVID-19. If workers are no longer commuting to jobs in an urban center, they are far more likely to shop with nearby, suburban retailers. Such trends are evident in the restaurant industry, where suburban eateries are attracting a lunch rush that previously would have been downtown in the middle of the day. They also include gift and apparel retailers though, because it is no longer easy or convenient for commuters to pop into a shop around the corner for a new suit or a gift for their child to bring to a birthday party the coming weekend.

But attributing all of these changes just to the pandemic may be short-sighted overall. There is no question that non-urban retail locations, especially in commuter communities surrounding big cities like New York City, are benefitting from the change in people’s work lives. In Westchester County in New York for example, an estimated 40 percent of residents commuted into the city every day for work. Now that 90 percent of the employees whose offices are in Manhattan are working from home, and those workers find it much easier to access their local shops and restaurants.

They also have more disposable income in many cases. For example, if they cancelled vacations to avoid traveling during the height of the coronavirus, they might have a little more to spend on gifts to tell loved ones that they are thinking of them. The frustration of lockdowns led people to order more delivery meals as well, which again benefit the restaurants nearest their homes. Another retailer, specializing in picture framing, noted that people who had gotten tired of staring at the same walls in their houses were splurging more on artwork and presentations that add interest to their living spaces.

But as the retail owners acknowledge, these shifts also required some traditional marketing trends to come to fruition. One small sushi chain, with three locations, noted that it closed its Manhattan spot even before the pandemic, because it found that its best advertising and growth came from parents at their children’s weekend soccer games, telling one another about a great meal they had the night before. That word-of-mouth effect has intensified during the pandemic, but the basic premise remains the same. As local online parenting groups share suggestions for where to find the best sushi, the local restaurant recognizes that this form of marketing still has the most impact on its sales.

Similarly, after a New Jersey resident read about a gift shop on her town’s local website and visited there once, to find toys to keep her children busy during the lockdown, she returned dozens of times to get more gifts for friends, whose birthdays and anniversaries she wanted to celebrate. In this sense, having an appealing assortment remains the main driver of her shopping; the pandemic simply pushed her to find the store in the first place.

The importance of both traditional marketing benefits and the impetus created by the coronavirus is likely to persist, considering another notable trend: more people moving out of the city and to the suburbs. One estimate indicates that 5 percent of New York City residents have sought to leave—which may seem small until we think about how many people that percentage reflects. Home sales in commuter communities accordingly increased by 44 percent in 2020, compared with before the pandemic.

Thus local retailers are gearing up to welcome new loyal customers. They know that their old (or perhaps “long-standing” is a preferable description) and loyal customers have kept them afloat during difficult times in the past, and they hope that their newly loyal fans will help them continue to do so for the future.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How has the pandemic changed customer buying behavior?
  2. How has consumer buying behavior remained essentially the same, even during the pandemic?
  3. Are the shifts likely to persist across different stages and the abatement of the pandemic?

Source: Kristen Bayrakdarian and Kevin Armstrong, “Why Some Suburban Businesses Are Thriving During the Pandemic,” The New York Times, February 1, 2021