Coronavirus: Research shows big changes in Bay Area spending habits during COVID-19 shelter-in-place

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Coronavirus shelter-in-place orders had a big impact on consumer spending as shoppers changed their buying habits.

Those trends are being analyzed to help decide whether to bring back laid-off retail workers when stores re-open.

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The minute we learned shelter-in-place orders were coming, our shopping habits changed dramatically. We saw grocery stores stripped bare of goods that aren't even part of earthquake preparedness kits.

"I don't think we realized that people would be buying up all the flour, all the pasta, all the toilet paper," noted Rachel Massaro at the Silicon Valley Institute for Regional Studies. "Those are things we hadn't thought of to put in our earthquake supplies."

In our region, grocery spending spiked 81% in mid-March compared to a year earlier. Retail briefly went up 33%. Hobbies and toys sales shot up 29%. Specialty food and beverage purchases spiked 63%.

As lines grew intolerable to get into stores, spending shifted to online shopping.

Amazon Fresh saw a spike of 400%. Food was clearly a priority. Traditional retailers and restaurants left with only take-out orders fell victim to that. Over the first four weeks of shelter-in-place, their sales fell about 32%. As unemployment rose, clothing store sales dropped about 50%.

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"We were already spending more than half our money on online purchases, and so because of that, we're more inclined to make that shift away from the brick and mortar stores," said Ms. Massaro.

A Costco executive indicates outdoor furniture sales are on the rise with warmer weather and with families cooped up seeking fresh air and sunshine. Discount pricing may be partly responsible.

The shift in spending to online and how the sheltering orders influenced what we stocked up on are now fodder for business owners to digest as they look ahead. Hard decisions will have to be made about re-opening stores and how many furloughed employees to bring back.

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