University of Tennessee

Pandemic Prompts Shifts in Retail Marketing Strategies

February 25, 2021

When 2020 began, no one could have predicted the extent to which the novel coronavirus would impact so many activities of daily life, including shopping. Stephanie Noble, Proffitt’s Professor in Marketing and William B. Stokely Faculty Research Fellow at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, believes many changes that have taken place in the retail world — from the types of products in demand to shopping and delivery methods — are here to stay.

When economic shutdowns and social distancing measures took effect, companies quickly had to adjust their marketing strategies to meet their customers’ new wants and needs. Since people began spending more time at home, many have wanted to update their spaces, and savvy retailers have responded accordingly with new decor collections. Masking in public means fewer consumers have been wearing lipstick but more are in the market for eye make-up and long-wearing foundation that won’t rub off on their face coverings.

While demand for certain products is likely to shift again when the pandemic is under control, other recent changes in the retail industry may become standard. Services such as grocery delivery, curbside pickup and online sales consultations that once seemed extravagant have become mainstream already.

“I think many of these innovations are here to stay because they offer value in so many ways — not just in keeping consumers safe from a pandemic,” Noble says. “Any technology that makes the shopping experience more convenient likely will be expected in the future.”

Moving forward, it will be crucial for retailers to understand what experiences consumers value in online or in-person shopping. After a long period of isolation, some shoppers may be eager for the sensory experience of touching, smelling and trying out merchandise, while others will be uninterested in giving up the convenience of shopping exclusively online. According to Noble, if customers are happy online, retailers need to find ways to reach them there so they don’t switch to a competing retailer.

“I never used online grocery shopping and delivery before the pandemic,” she says. “But now that I’ve got an account set up and have become proficient at using it, I might never enter a grocery store again – regardless of what the store does to try to lure me back in.” 

In recent years, Noble says, some marketing experts believed the number of long-established stores that were closing or struggling heralded a “retail apocalypse.” During the same period, however, new retailers were setting up shop, resulting in a net growth in the total number of retail establishments. Although this occurred before the pandemic, Noble believes the idea of an overall shift in the retail landscape remains relevant.

“Stores that do not evolve become obsolete,” Noble says. “Stores that find ways to stay competitive by offering more convenience or a better experience will meet consumers’ needs better than other stores and these are the stores that will persist, even in this difficult environment.”


Stacy Estep, writer/publicist,