Before March, shoppers would go to the mall or grocery store – without masks – and scout out the latest sales.
Now, shopping looks much different.
“The way consumers approach shopping has understandably changed as a result of COVID-19,” says Katherine Cullen, senior director for industry and consumer insights at the National Retail Federation.
“With stay-at-home orders and mandatory store closures, many consumers have utilized digital channels and tools in ways they may not have before.”
As how we shop changes (think mobile shopping and buying online, picking up in store), we have to adapt as shoppers, too.
The best prices and first available inventory go to consumers who are more than just shoppers. They’re also deal-hunting detectives and strategists.
Here’s how to shop smart in the midst of the pandemic.
Put on your detective hat
While some in-demand products, such as hand sanitizer and toilet paper, have become easier to find after initial shortages at the onset of stay-at-home orders, items like disinfecting wipes still aren’t readily available.
To get a shot at any popular products, sign up for in-stock alerts, says Saoud Khalifah, CEO of Fakespot, an artificial intelligence platform that analyzes e-commerce transactions and online reviews.
If an item isn’t available, retailers typically offer a field to input your email address. You’ll get notified when the item is restocked and can jump on it right away.
Expand your search, too, advises Charles Lindsey, associate professor of marketing at the University at Buffalo School of Management in New York. He says the first wipes he was able to score were off the beaten path, not at a chain store.
“Diversify your consideration set in terms of the stores where you shop,” he says. That may mean going to mom-and-pop shops or pharmacies instead of grocery stores.
And consult with others. Lindsey says social media networks can provide localized information. Check online sources such as Nextdoor or Facebook to see if any of your neighbors have posted about seeing delivery trucks outside of the warehouse club on a specific day of the week or restocked shelves at a certain time of the day.
Avoid extra fees
It’s also important to avoid overpaying for items, especially as many former in-store shoppers face added expenses like delivery fees and shipping costs.
If you’re shopping for groceries, avoid delivery to save money, Lindsey advises. Opting for contactless curbside pickup will circumvent some of the fees and tips associated with home deliveries, while still eliminating your time in a physical store.
And there’s no need to overly stockpile, says Andrew Ching, a professor in the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University.
At the onset of the pandemic, many consumers panic shopped, buying as much as possible of essential household items. But inventory will come back, so try to stay calm.
Do plenty of research
You can also learn a thing or two from extreme couponers. These bargain hunters are famous for their thorough research of sales, deals and coupons.
If you’re shopping at online marketplaces like Amazon, compare prices among sellers, Khalifah recommends. Even if you find a low price, take it a step further to compare prices on other sites, such as Walmart and eBay. Online shopping tools and browser extensions, including one from Fakespot, can do this analysis for you.
Lindsey also recommends using deal apps, such as ShopSavvy, and websites that aggregate available offers.
But before you buy anything, try to validate the legitimacy of the listing you found. “When you’re looking at the first page of reviews, that first page is usually not the best page to be looking at,” Khalifah says.
In the age of fake reviews and phone products, you’ll need to scroll through several pages of reviews to get a better sense of the seller and product. Pay close attention.
And if you’re purchasing something for the first time, Khalifah says, watching video reviews is often more valuable than reading written reviews. You’ll be able to see someone actually using a product, as opposed to reading a review that could’ve been written by a computer program, or bot.
Stay the course
As you start implementing these smart shopping habits, don’t forget them anytime soon. Shifts in consumer shopping habits likely won’t be going away, according to Catherine Roster, professor of marketing at the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management.
She says most marketers believe many of these changes will be “sticky.” That means the popularity of online shopping for groceries and low-contact transactions like curbside pickup are sticking around for a while.
Courtney Jespersen is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @courtneynerd.