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Impact of COVID-19 on Consumer Behaviour of Older Adults: a consumer revolution or a passing phase?

The pandemic has hit the economies of most countries and many industries hard - especially because consumer behavior has changed drastically. This is especially true for older consumers who have spent the greater part of their lives in an offline world. However, due to lockdowns and economic instability, they have been forced to adjust their consumption patterns in a very short period of time.

Retail closures - with the exception of grocery and drug stores - created new challenges for older consumers in particular. Not only was shopping reduced to products for daily needs, but the fear of infection also deterred many seniors from shopping at the store. However, this need also created great solidarity. For example, private shopping assistance was offered by different groups of people, and food delivery services for orders directly from establishments were greatly expanded (e.g. from restaurants). The latter was used more frequently by the older adults than before the pandemic. But other problems, such as social isolation, also had to be addressed during the pandemic. This also forced seniors to make the move to the online world.

So what impact have these circumstances had on the consumer behavior of older people? Older people are more willing to make larger expenditures. For example, buying a vehicle was more likely for 60- to 69-year-olds at the start of the pandemic than before. In fall 2019, for example, 46.7% said they planned to buy a vehicle in 2020. By the spring of 2020, the figure had jumped to 84.6%.

Tobacco and alcohol consumption, on the other hand, have changed little during the pandemic, as a Forsa survey commissioned by the Kaufmännische Krankenkasse, KKH, found. Before the pandemic, one in three people aged 50 to 69 drank alcohol several times a week, and the evidence suggested that this changed very little during the pandemic.  For smoking behaviour the pattern looks the same, with only one in fourteen increasing their cigarette consumption since the pandemic began.

The German E-Commerce and Mail Order Association found that seniors had few problems with online consumption. According to the study, online sales among the over-50s rose from 40% to over 55%. For Americans 65 and older, the Stanford Center on Longevity found that 75% of people in this age group go online daily. Restrictions due to the pandemic (e.g., social distancing) have left the older adult population with few alternatives to purchase food and consumer goods, access health services, or participate in fitness classes. For example, Alibaba reports that in China, online food orders by people over 60 were four times higher during the pandemic than they were before the pandemic.

But a survey by the Swiss Re Institute suggests that older generations will not maintain the new digital habits in the long run. Once the COVID rule relaxations take effect, older individuals will be more likely to return to consuming at local stores and businesses. For the time being though, older people are still cautious. A survey by EY-Parthenon and Innofact, for example, shows that only 36% of respondents in the 60 to 79 age group visited retail stores at their re-openings in summer 2020. In comparison, 58% of 18- to 29-year-olds said they had already been back to retail shops.

About the Authors

Dr. Norbert Meiners, Professor of Business Adminstration, PHWT University, Department of Business Adminstration, Vechta, Germany. Norberrt is an affiliate research fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing.

Vimal Chandra Verma, Assistant Professor, Siddharth University, Pachangawa, Uttar Pradesh, India. Vimal was a former Leslie Kirkley Visiting Researcher at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing.

Elisabeth Leewe, Research Associate, PHWT University, Department of Business Adminstration, Vechta, Germany.

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