COVID-19 has changed the way we shop

By , Special to the Daily Memphian Published: August 31, 2020 4:00 AM CT

She got engaged spontaneously in the middle of a pandemic, but no ring, no stores open to try one on, and no telling when a jeweler would be open for try-ons.

“He told me I could pick out the ring I wanted,” Amber Blair, 32, said of fiancé Andy Wong, both of Memphis. “I thought, ‘It’s going to be forever.’ There were no jewelry stores open to go to.”

She got online, but couldn’t predict what the ring she’d wear forever might look like on her finger. That’s when she spotted a novel try-at-home ring program.

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The pandemic may have changed forever the way Blair – and millions of other people – shop for goods. E-commerce penetration, for example, rose to 27% of all retail sales since the pandemic, up from 14% before the virus, 2PM Inc. reported in late May.

The trends have been in motion for months, but accounts from the impact of COVID-19 on specific industries continue to emerge.

Robert Irwin Jewelers offered a try-at-home program after non-essential businesses were forced to close to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

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The Memphis jeweler will mail up to five prototypes of engagement rings to participating customers for a refundable $25 deposit. The company creates various designs using sterling silver, gold plating and top-rated cubic zirconia.

Blair not only saw what each ring looked like on her finger as she went about her day, but she shopped from the comfort and safety of her home.

“I do my research online now. It takes the pressure off,” said Blair, an Indigo Ag employee. “I do miss being in stores with people, but you feel safer.”

Howard Knopf, CEO of Robert Irwin Jewelers, came up with the idea of a try-at-home program for engagement rings years ago. He pulled the trigger on it in May.

“I thought, ‘This is the right time,’” Knopf said. “That’s what being an entrepreneur is all about. You have an idea and the next day you make it happen.”

A search for eye glasses sparked the idea.

Knopf’s sister put him onto Warby Parker, which offers to send customers five frames to try at home.

Warby Parker hasn’t been the only business model turning historical in-person customer experiences into an off-site or online shopping encounter.

Carvana is an online-only model for used cars that offers home delivery of purchased vehicles.

Those companies pre-date the pandemic, but Carvana has been a model for the car industry this year, said Jeremy Anspach, CEO of PureCars, which tracks digital advertising trends for auto dealers and the industry.

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“Like them, car dealers are saying let’s take it further, all virtually, and deliver,” Anspach said. “There’s a huge surge in acceleration to radical hospitality.”

Publicly traded, Carvana’s stock price has risen along with sales. On March 19, its stock was trading for $30 a share. It closed at $218.44 on Aug. 28.

The internet began transforming car buying and selling more than a decade ago, but with the pandemic, the business went online “like never before,” Anspach said.

According to PureCars, the top Google keywords and phrases being leveraged today include “home delivery,” “buy online,” and “touchless/contactless buying.”

Consumer confidence rebounded as the pandemic continued into the summer and showrooms opened, Anspach said.

“Trucks have sold exceptionally well,” he said. “We started to see a turn when everything opened.”

Mike Gross is general manager of Butch Davis Chevrolet in Ripley, Mississippi, where the advertising slogan is “Drive a Little, Save a Lot.” Half his business comes from Shelby County, an hour away.

In a rural area, he hasn’t seen a lot of special requests. Only one customer asked for a car to be delivered, but he is seeing not only a return to customer confidence but an accelerated desire for vehicles.

“We were always busy, but never like this,” Gross said.

In June, the dealership sold 12 cars. Last month, it sold 187.

“People pouring in just one after the other,” Gross said. “We’re all questioning why business is so good. There are pockets hurting like manufacturing and the restaurant industry, but everybody else you talk to who is open, they are doing business. Going gangbusters. I think the economy is pretty darn good.”

The return to the showroom in Ripley foreshadows what the head of PureCars expects to see with car shopping everywhere.

“Online behavior will continue to rise,” Anspach said, “but the unique car-buying experience – the feel of the road, the turning radius – these are impossible to describe in words. The majority of people will still want to interact with a dealer and mosey around a lot.”

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Carvana Robert Irwin Jewelers social distancing retail industry
Toni Lepeska

Toni Lepeska

Toni Lepeska is a freelance reporter for The Daily Memphian. The 32-year veteran of newspaper journalism covers a diversity of topics, always seeking to reveal the human story behind the news. Toni, who grew up in Cayce, Mississippi, is a graduate of the University of Mississippi. To learn more, visit


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