What People Are Shopping for Now, Months Into a Pandemic

Kali Hays

As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, online shopping habits continue to evolve.

Even with the easing of lockdown measures in most U.S. states (with some now reverting), a lot of people are still investing in staying at home, according to trends seen by media companies with large or growing affiliate businesses. This includes Wirecutter, owned by The New York Times; Vox, which owns New York Magazine and The Strategist and The Cut verticals; and Condé Nast, which is increasingly focused on affiliate revenue.

“I think we’ve reached a different stage, where it feels less like people prepping for a dire situation and more, ‘Oh, this is perhaps the set of circumstances we’re going to find ourselves in for a long-ish period of time,’” Jason Chen, Wirecutter’s deputy editor said of shopping trends on the site.

Compared to a few weeks into the pandemic, Chen said he’s seeing over the last several weeks some more expected and seasonal things sell well, like portable air conditioners, indoor and outdoor grilling tools. Sales of masks have fallen off a bit, as have thermometers, which Wirecutter frequently saw sell out in March and April. But other items that sold well in the earlier days have held steady, including fitness equipment like weights and resistance bands, and at-home office chairs and standing desks, all signs that people are still investing in being at home more.

Asked if there’s been a precipitous drop off in traffic to the site compared with the early coronavirus-related boom many media outlets saw, Chen said interest has continued to be high and Wirecutter is looking at a year-over year increase. But it is shifting its content in the direction that readers are going.

“We’re, for better or worse, reaching a point where people are getting fatigued reading [coronavirus items] constantly or there’s not as much of a sense of urgency,” Chen said. “It’s still a big priority for us, with a little bit of a shift in emphasis from health things to now acclimating to the idea of being at home…the adjustment to life under these circumstances.”

At Vox, which last year acquired New York Magazine, shopping has held steadier than expected internally at The Strategist, which does only product recommendations, and The Cut.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” said Camilla Cho, senior vice president of e-commerce at Vox. “I didn’t think people would be shopping this much during the pandemic. For some, I think it’s like therapy.”

Unlike at Wirecutter, Cho said The Strategist and The Cut have seen masks in June and July continue to sell very well compared to the first weeks of the pandemic.

“It’s amazing how much they’re selling — we’ve sold millions and millions and millions of dollars in masks and across all the mask posts we’ve published so far,” Cho said. 

She chalked it up mainly to people needing to wear masks for months to come and buying different types for different activities, but also said face shields have started to become more popular. As have accessories for masks, like chains intended to hold glasses around the neck being repurposed as mask-holders.

Outside of that, self tanner has been selling well, Cho said, along with glasses that claim to block the blue light from computer screens. Inflatable pool floats are quickly running out of stock.

“That’s actually a tough one because they’re not in stock right now, and when they come back, they sell out right away,” Cho said.

Similar to Wirecutter, Cho is also seeing fitness equipment sell consistently well. Rowing machines are apparently popular. And increased sales of sewing machines have continued.

“A lot of people have taken that up as a hobby,” Cho said. “At the same time, we’ve seen a bit of a downward trend in cooking. Initially everyone was baking bread, now you want to be outside a little more.”

As for fashion, Cho has been pleased to see sales of shoes staying consistent to years past, but when she looks closer at what product is moving, it’s not summer sandals, but running shoes and hiking books for men and women. Hiking has also become a more popular pastime, according to affiliate trends at Vox. And pajamas have remained good sellers.

Editorially, The Strategist and The Cut are planning to expand a bit into covering other coronavirus-related trends, like at-home learning and even finance. The Strategist recently did an extensive story on which credit cards are best and some coverage of back-to-school (as it were amid the pandemic) is coming, with a look at online learning and teacher perspectives.

“We’re still experimenting with different types of product categories,” Cho said.

But across the affiliate business at Vox, business has been good during the pandemic. May was a record month for the company on affiliate traffic and revenue, Cho said. June was down slightly from that high, but still “very, very strong,” and July is shaping up the same way. Unsurprising that Cho said Vox is starting to invest even more time and resources into this part of the business.

More specifically in the fashion category, Moda Operandi, which sends out editorialized content to shoppers to drive sales, has seen a shift in what people bought earlier in the pandemic compared to June and July. In shoes, the bestseller has moved from a crystal and satin stiletto by Mach & Mach to Veja’s white low-top sneaker. Sales of home goods have also tripled since February, according to Moda, with bestsellers being a $110 dinner plate and an $80 salad plate from Carolina Irving in collaboration with Remy Renzullo. 

While this could signal a new level of staying at home, Moda said the trunk show for Jacquemus spring 2021 collection “performed very well” this month, with a sheer black cotton dress retailing at $600 being the top seller in the collection. It’s not exactly a lounge dress, but certainly one for the warm summer months.

But it’s not just masks and indoor grills and designer dresses people are after during the pandemic. Wired, the tech magazine published by Condé Nast, is seeing its burgeoning affiliate business grow rapidly.

“We’re seeing a pretty dramatic increase in interest in anything shopping and that’s paired with a pretty dramatic increase in affiliate revenue,” Scott Rosenfield, Wired’s site director, said. A Condé spokeswoman said Wired had the most revenue of all the publishers’ brands since March, with second quarter revenue up 252 percent year-over-year. 

Wired’s affiliate business is only about two years old and Condé has been focusing on the revenue stream more of late. Vogue has new shoppable lists compiled by editors that have helped drive affiliate revenue up 429 percent year-over-year; Glamour’s gift guides have helped increase 578 percent year-over-year; GQ’s shift to recommending lockdown essentials like sweatpants, hand sanitizer ad grooming tools has helped with a 230 percent sales increase.     

Rosenfield said one outlier trend for Wired during the pandemic has been e-bikes, with Wired’s coverage of that “blowing up in a significant way.” An e-bike is a big-ticket item, with most falling between $1,200 and $5,000, but they can be even more costly. Another bigger-ticket item that’s been selling well are mattresses. Then people have been buying pizza ovens and signing up for a lot of meal kit subscription boxes.

Rosenfield said such items show people “wanting to live just a little bit better.” With e-bikes, part of the popularity is about avoiding public transit. Pizza ovens are part of people cooking at home more. Mattresses, people are using them more and upgrading. Meal kits keep people from another trip to the grocery store.

“The most surprising thing to me overall is people have still been making these purchases,” Rosenfield said. “One of the big concerns at the start [of the pandemic] was that this would all be at risk, so the fact that we’re even having this conversation is interesting.”

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