No More Material World? Post-pandemic Consumerism A Seismic Shift

The pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives. Not least among these are our consumer habits.
The pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives. Not least among these are our consumer habits.
A graphic that depicts a full shopping cart with the words "Consumption 2.0" next to it.

The pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives. Not least is how we decide what to buy and the social responsibility we expect from companies.

For many people in the world today, life is now divided clearly into two eras: before and after COVID-19. It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about “the before times” and hypothesize on when the virus might be past us. Given this epochal demarcation in our lives, clear as a border line on any map, what will change when “the after times” are finally upon us?

A graphic showing a shopping card bursting forth from a smartphone.
Consumers want more intimate and personal relationships with the brands and companies they support, Hong says, adding that they also want to see more social and environmental responsibility from companies.

Soonkwan Hong, associate professor of marketing in the Michigan Technological University College of Business and a member of the Institute of Policy, Ethics, and Culture, says one major change has already begun — a seismic shift to our consumer habits. Purchasing habits that might have been mindless before have come under scrutiny as household budgets have shrunk or needs have changed.

About the Researcher 


“As consumers, not so many people look at their consumption from social, political and cultural angles,” Hong said. “But I’m sure a lot of people have started evaluating their lives from different angles because of the pandemic.”

In Western society, how people spend their money is often directly tied to their professions and perceptions of self. Suit jackets and slacks are required in some industries, high-end technical equipment in others. Vacations to popular destinations, fancy cars, the newest smartphone — the optional nature of these consumption choices has been made clear as the pandemic has shifted priorities.

What Really Matters: Connection

The pandemic has reminded us of a lesson we must stop forgetting: Humanity is a species built on community and collaboration, not endless competition and accumulation.

In his latest paper, “‘Coronated’ Consumption in the Viral Market,” published recently in the journal Markets, Globalization and Development Review, Hong proposes that the pandemic has “escalated desires for safety and connected individuality,” a shift toward buying local — connecting with local makers or providers — and buying in a way that has a positive impact on one’s community.

Consumers want more intimate and personal relationships with the brands and companies they support. To satisfy their wants and needs, Hong says companies must do more than merely sympathize with social causes in an effort to appear socially conscious when making money continues to be the primary goal.

Post-pandemic Consumerism

“Pretending to be socially responsible will be penalized unless a company’s motive is authentic,” Hong said. “The ‘Before Coronavirus’ market that once operated well by relying on its momentum will become passé unless it can transcend its raison d’être to extract economic value from everything and anything.”

Hong points to the UK-based app The Night Feed as an example of how consumerism is shifting. The app targets millennial mothers who are breastfeeding in the middle of the night. They can connect with each other via this app to share advice or bemoan their mutual lack of sleep. But The Night Feed is more than a chat room; it’s a marketplace for goods and services young mothers might want or need. It distinguishes itself from other marketplaces by providing something of true value to millennial parents: authentic connection through the medium of midnight chats about diapers and strollers.

Fetishizing Algorithms 

Read more about Hong’s research on consumerism, technology and algorithms. 

“The pandemic is not the end of the story,” Hong said. “It can open up a new chapter that’s much more important where the market system is not just relying on the supply and demand curve or the way you advertise your product; it’s much more than that. I think consumers will voice their opinions more, which will bring more organic and symbiotic progress.”

It’s all but certain: How and what we consume will be different after the pandemic. And we can choose to purchase the goods we need from companies that make them with the public good in mind.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.