5Qs for Katie Thomas on the post-pandemic marketplace

Al Urbanski
Real Estate Editor & Manager
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Katie Thomas
Katie Thomas

Will online sales of consumer products will stay around 40% after the pandemic’s over? Not likely, according to Katie Thomas, leader of the Kearney Consumer Institute, a think tank and consulting firm focused on shopper behavior. Thomas, a brand management veteran of Kraft Heinz and Tyson, maintains that the number of consumer brands and retailers that are asking customers the right questions are few.

“We advocate for the consumer and challenge the views of our clients,” she said. Here’s what else she had to say about the post-pandemic marketplace.

The pandemic has moved shoppers to previously unheard-of levels of online purchasing. Will some of that percentage fall back to physical retail?

I think a good portion of it will shift back to in-store purchase. What’s happened is less of a shift to digital purchase and more of a search for optionality. Once you take away the constraints around closed stores, socially distanced lines, and public safety, I think the behavior of consumers will shift back to what they did before the pandemic. Some of the online business grocers have been doing will stick, though. People like the convenience of not always having to run to the grocery store. But a lot of us still want to see exactly what chicken we’ll buy for dinner.

Which new habits of convenience are here to stay?

Again, it all centers around increased options. People really love curbside pickup. In a pinch they’ll order online and pick up curbside They’ve gotten used to making fewer, bigger shopping trips, but I don’t know if those will continue. Bigger basket sizes have a lot to do with not being able to dine out at restaurants.

The fade-out of the Spanish Flu 100 years ago led to the “Roaring Twenties.” Do you expect cooped-up consumers to go a little wild once they’re free to go where they please?

I think very much that the Roaring 20s phenomenon will happen and that travel, shopping, and going to concerts and movies will increase. But a lot of brands won’t make it back. Not all retailers are created equal. Lots of those mall specialty retailers will fall away. Consumers have so many options, so you still have to prove you’re the best to engender trust.

Will strategic partnerships and collaborations forged during the pandemic stick?

I think we’ll continue to see a lot of strategic partnerships like Sephora in Kohl’s and Ulta Beauty in Targe. Retailers have to be honest about where they’re strengths lie. The more touchpoints you can have, the better. And as physical retailers expand their omnichannel operations, they have to focus on transparency with consumers. While speed of delivery is a factor, it’s relative. Speed doesn’t mean you have to get it to me on the same day. What are my options? What will they cost? Amazon Prime does a great job with transparency. They’ll commit to delivering in three days and they come through.

Where should American retailers look for inspiration abroad?

Because its populations are so large, Asia is the place to look for selling products by doing live streaming. We’re starting to see some small brands test that here. For advances in sustainability and locally sourced products, Europe is the place to look for inspiration. The freshness and variety of local products are a great boost for physical retailers. They get consumers to keep coming back to the stores to see what’s new.