New consumption behaviors emerging from the global coronavirus pandemic

To map the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on behavior and consumption, we’ve analyzed over ten million social media posts, in addition to other digital footprints (including app downloads and search statistics). The stories that people in Sweden and around the world share about the new reality they are in help us to understand how behaviors and consumption patterns are changing. Overall, we find that the crisis has accelerated ongoing behavioral changes, giving rise to new trends. Below are five selected insights from the study:

1. Large differences between countries in human movement patterns
Data collected by Google (via mobile phones) on movement patterns in different countries shows that visits to all types of locations outside the home have sharply dropped in almost all countries. However, there are two groups of countries that stand out: In East Asia, the decline has been significantly less than in the rest of the world. And in Sweden and other countries in northern Europe, visits to green areas have spiked, while they have fallen in almost every other region of the world. For example, in Sweden, visits to green areas rose by almost 70% during the crisis.

Several apps that have climbed quickly in download statistics confirm a growing desire to spend quality time outdoors. For example, one fast-growing app matches songs to their birds, while another uses image recognition to identify plants. Even unique types of navigation and exercise apps are seeing jumps in popularity, like Run, Zombies!, a story-based app where users are “chased” by zombies throughout their workout.

At the same time, discussions in social media show that the balcony (as a space) has risen in importance for Swedes. A sign that the garden has moved into the home, the balcony is used, among other things, for growing vegetables and herbs. This is in line with a large uptick in social media discussions about self-sufficiency.

2. More frugal consumption choices
Significantly, today's youth – already concerned about the global climate crisis – have become the first generation in our part of the world since World War II to experience insecurity so strongly in their formative years that it led to the hoarding of food and household goods.

On Instagram it has come to be considered provocative to post pictures flaunting glamorous garments. Instead, posts reflecting toned down choices and frugality land better. Hashtags like #thriftstyle are trending: simplicity, essentialism/simplification, and scaling down are concepts that pop up frequently in social media discussions. Many people find that there is much you can make yourself instead of buying. One commenter notes: "Who could have imagined that it is so easy to make cold brewed coffee yourself. I've wasted millions of dollars!"

From nut butter to nail polish, consumers are still prepared to spend time and money on simple luxuries, according to e-commerce data. To treat yourself to something and pamper yourself are big themes in social media.

Even the consumption-oriented youth in China, where we've been looking to get a hint of what recovery might look like, are now talking about "duansheli" – or cutting out the non-essential. One Chinese netizen notes: "The virus has put a lid on my passion for shopping," while another says: "I won't be buying anymore clothes or skin care products this year.” Despite government-funded coupons, shopping festivals, and a narrative on social media around "revenge shopping", the overall picture from China is one of thriftiness. While consumption has risen from 40% at the peak of the crisis (versus pre‑crisis) to 80% now, this still represents an 20% decline overall. The money that consumers did not spend during the crisis is not being spent now. Anyone hoping for a quick, V-shaped recovery will be disappointed.

The crisis may accelerate a trend towards being resourceful (by reusing, repairing, or thrift flipping what you have), and purchasing fewer (but higher quality) items.

3. New routines to transform the home into a place of productivity
People are seeking out alternative workspaces when they work from home. E‑commerce sales for chairs and monitors for home offices are rising, and inventive solutions are used to create spaces for productivity in the home (social media is full of do-it-yourself tips, such as how to turn an ironing board into a standing table). But our analysis also shows that beds, sofas, and armchairs have also become common places to work from. For example, on Instagram, more than 8,000 people have shared photos of how they use their beds as makeshift workspaces. Both statistics on app downloads and social media discussions show that phones and tablets – more couch-friendly devices than computers – are increasingly being used for work.

Additionally, working from home means that people use their time in a different way than previously. Many complain that the time saved on commuting is instead spent on more work. A large cluster of online discussions center around how to deal with the blurred boundaries between work and leisure time, given both now take place in the same space. Tips are exchanged on how to create routines and clear transitions for the beginning and end of the working day. Other users express appreciation for being able to take long breaks in the middle of the working day.

With all the distractions of being home and more people sharing a limited space, the need to focus is growing. One of the apps that has seen a rapid rise in downloads, both in Sweden and in the eight other countries surveyed, is Forest: Stay focused. The app is a kind of reverse Tamagotchi: by avoiding using your phone, a virtual shrub begins to grow, eventually becoming a tree – but if you use your phone, you interrupt growth, and the plant dies.

4. A strong focus on well-being
One of the biggest themes to emerge in online discussions is around well-being and training. For example, Google searches for concepts such as "workout" and "meditation" have risen rapidly during the crisis, and among the mobile apps that have climbed fastest in download statistics are several fitness and meditation apps. Users across social media discuss the importance of maintaining a sense of courage, and boosting immune systems through positivity, meditation and mindfulness, yoga, helpful rituals, and getting a lot of sleep. From the beginning of the pandemic, vitamins and minerals have been among the products that have seen strong growth in e‑commerce.

Yoga mats and strength training equipment have also risen sharply in online sales. Personal trainers are offering virtual tutorials and workouts have moved online. Among the apps that have climbed fastest in download statistics include several focused on building workout motivation and helping users monitor their fitness goals.

5. “Cocooning” as protection from an uncertain environment
Discussions around stress and anxiety have grown strongly in social media. Both are linked to the risk of contracting the virus and the economic uncertainty induced by COVID-19. It is therefore not surprising that “coziness” and “comfort” emerge so strongly in the analysis: they go across many themes and activities – fashion, gaming, music, and more.

Among the literary genres that have been given a boost are “cozy mystery” (cozy crime novels) and romance. Spotify notes that listening through the service has moved towards calming, acoustic, and instrumental music. The pandemic's biggest gaming success is Animal Crossing: New Horizons for Nintendo Switch, a game in a quiet and dreamy world, as far from action as you can get.

Several of the fastest growing mobile games blur the line between gaming and meditation. Popular activities include clearing weeds from a virtual garden, dissolving virtual knots, coloring in 3D figures, and hugging virtual stuffed animals and then watching them slowly regain their original shape. Hands-on, relaxing activities including painting, baking, knitting, and DIY projects have also seen a boost in online discussions. Clay, musical instruments, and crafting are mentioned more than before the pandemic.

The increased need for convenience has been noted, among other businesses, by Walmart, where trouser sales have fallen much more sharply than shirt sales, likely because only the top halves of people are visible in video meetings. Going against the trend, sweatpants have risen sharply in sales.

With over 100,000 posts, the hashtag #pillowchallenge shows participants (people and the occasional cat) dressing in only a pillow and a belt. In general, there seems to be a strong need for humor as a way to deal with the crisis – a strategy which does not work in corporate communications.

The “new normal”
Further into the global pandemic, the world seems less and less likely to return to its former state post-crisis. Many phenomena that were previously limited to smaller groups of trendsetters, in particular different kinds of virtual behaviors, have now been embraced by the population at large. This also applies to people in their 70s and 80s, at least in Sweden, who largely download apps for video meetings, online shopping, and to stay informed about the pandemic. While the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic remains to be seen, one thing we can be sure of is the world will never be the same again.

About the study
The aim of the study was to map behavioral and consumption changes emerging from the coronavirus crisis. The analysis was based on over 10 million everyday social media posts from March and April 2020, both from Sweden and a selection of countries in Europe, North America, and Asia. AI-based methods were used to identify recurring topics in the texts, after which the subjects were studied in depth by close reading of individual texts. In this way, insights were allowed to emerge from the material free from bias, hypotheses, and predetermined focus areas.

Other themes covered in the study:

  • The reconfiguration of social structures
  • The new global "corona tribe" driving a new type of consumption
  • A more informed population
  • Entertainment in times of crisis
  • New hobbies and kid-friendly activities
  • The long-term impact of the crisis on behavior and consumption

If you are interested in learning more, please contact Tomas Larsson, Director AI‑Powered Insights at Kairos Future. You can also read more about the study here.