Google shopping and pastime search insights from the pandemic year

Posted by Edith MacLeod on 27 Apr, 2021
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How online consumer behaviours have evolved over the past year, and which changes are likely to stick.

Lockdown pastimes.

Google hobby and pastime searches interactive tool.

The global pandemic has without doubt fuelled online activity and accelerated certain trends and behaviours. In a series of reports, Google shared insights from the past year based on search data, trends and research, examining our online habits over the past year and the continuing evolution of online vs in-store shopping.

In this article we’ll look at the patterns and shifts Google has identified, and which ones are likely to become permanent.

1. Five retail trends for 2021

Taking data from Google Trends, Google analysed thousands of retail search trends and insights from 23 markets across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. While some changes were short lived, many were not fundamentally new, with the pandemic acting to accelerate behaviours and changes already under way.

Google identified 5 key consumer trends which it expects to endure for 2021 and beyond:

  1. Consumers are taking window shopping online
  2. Consumers are carefully considering who they buy from
  3. Consumers expect better value than ever
  4. Consumers expect extensive delivery options for everything
  5. Consumer demand will remain dynamic

Full report:

2. Accelerating behaviours - changing habits

Google’s research provides insights into our changing habits during the pandemic and the new ways in which we are living, working, playing and shopping.

“Google Search offers powerful insights into these changes in consumer habits. For example, we’ve seen interest for “grocery stores” and “takeaways” unexpectedly shift to weekdays, while "delivery" and "discount codes" saw higher interest during weekends.“

It identified the following key ways in which our behaviour has changed over the pandemic year:

Knowledge searches

Skills based searches have increased as learning has moved online during the pandemic, both for children and for adults. People have had to adapt to lockdown consequences such as home schooling, while also learning new practical skills for everyday tasks such as “how to cut hair”.  Many of us were also looking for new skills and ideas to cope with the boredom of lockdown.

Google says with people discovering how easy it is to upskill online, these searches for knowledge are expected to continue.

Inspiration and ideas sought online

With shops closed, browsing and window shopping has moved online, with searches such as “bathroom ideas” (Germany), or “home gym ideas” (Spain). Even with physicial stores reopening, Google says "we expect people will continue to actively seek inspiration online as one of the first steps in their purchase journey.”

Work/life balance

Having successfully embraced remote working, many people have no intention of returning to the classic 9-5 office work pattern.  High numbers of searches for items such as “high adjustable desk” (Sweden) or “comfortable office chair” (France) illustrate that remote working is here to stay.

We’ve also been searching for ways to relax, for example, “woodland walks near me” (UK) and “virtual gym” (Spain). Theatre and museum visits will revert back to their original form once restrictions are lifted, but virtual access shows how easy it is to have an online cultural experience when the real thing isn’t possible.

Staying connected

Online games with friends, and new online communities such as "virtual choirs" (UK) have seen an increase in interest. People will be keen to meet in person once this is possible, but Google says we’ve become more used to socialising online so “many of these online communities are likely to stay around in some form”.

New ways to have fun

Living under COVID restrictions, we’ve been looking for new things to do. Searches have ranged from short term activies such as “sushi at home” (Spain) to longer term life decisions like “adopt a dog” (Italy).  Even as we return to traditional ways of doing things, the past year has shown it’s easy to discover new things online, and this is likely to endure.


3. Pastimes searches during the pandemic

Google has created a new interactive tool which shows which hobby or pastime on any particular day had the greatest search increase compared to a year ago. Many people took up baking bread, or learning a new language; crafts and gardening were also popular.

For anyone who operates in one of these niches, Google’s tool provides a useful way to explore trends in your field over the past year.

You can explore by selecting a specific hobby, or by date, and click further into search or Google trends.


4. Which changes will stay?

Partnering with Trinity McQueen, Google carried out research to explore long-term changes in shopping behaviour at the consumer and sector level, surveying 5,000 people across the UK. Google says the results show “both opportunities for online retail and the value in-store experiences can add for an effective omnichannel strategy.”

Key findings from the research include:

Online experiences are here to stay

Google says there has been a “seismic shift” to online, which is here to stay.

“While many people will choose to return to in-store shopping to look at, touch, and try on products, new habits have formed around online shopping that have irrevocably changed the way the consumer buys.”

In the sectors surveyed, the percentage of people expecting to shop online vs in-store in the next 6 months remains significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels.

Online vs in-store.

While younger people are still the most likely to shop online, the research showed the biggest increase in switching to online over in-store was for consumers aged 35 and above.

It’s not just the pandemic driving changes

While the pandemic has been a significant driver and catalyst for online, it’s not the only reason consumers are choosing this way to shop. Convenience and ease of decision making and delivery are significant factors, especially for the younger generation.

Online advantages.

Consumers are trying new brands

As browsing and inspiration moved online, people discovered new brands. In the past year 1 in 4 clothing shoppers have bought from a new brand or retailer, and 75% of womenswear and 82% of menswear shoppers said they would continue to buy from these same new retailers over the next six months.  Google said this trend was echoed in other categories, such as home and beauty.

New brands.

Search data also reflects this with customers searching for ideas and inspiration rather than specific brands.  

“Generic searches are up across myriad categories, including “best electric car” (+80% year-on-year), “vegan meals” (+58% YoY), “best skincare” and “best paint”. Consumers are less decided than ever when shopping online, presenting valuable opportunities for purchase choices to be disrupted.”

The role of the physical store

The experiences of previously and newly digital shoppers regarding various aspects of shopping provide interesting insights.

Online vs offline advantages.

It suggests there are areas where online retailers can definitely up their game. Virtual reality solutions can help in some areas, for example knowing the actual size of clothes, what they look like in real life and getting advice.

Google says new converts to online shopping are likely to seek a more omnichannel experience going forwards. Interestingly, younger mobile shoppers, despite being online more than any group, showed a preference for a more hybrid off-and-online shopping experience versus older shoppers.

The research points to a way forward combining the best of online and offline experiences, showing how bricks and mortar stores can survive and thrive in a changing landscape.  

“This might mean a fundamental rethink of the strategic role of different touchpoints, with discovery and inspiration happening online and fulfillment and aftercare more suited to the physical store.”

Keeping pace with customer habits and needs, retailers can identify what online and in-store each do best and develop these areas while ensuring that the customer’s online and offline experience is consistent and high quality.


Google identified two further trends expected to stick, based on behaviour changes after the 2008 financial crisis, a period similarly of instability and economic uncertainty.

Deals and value for money

After the financial crisis hit, nearly 1 in 5 US shoppers bought lower priced goods, with 41% saying they preferred the premium brands but they were not worth the money.

Similar patterns have emerged during the pandemic with more than half of consumers in June last year saying they were paying more attention to products on sale.

Cross border ecommerce

After 2008, online retailers increasingly looked to markets and exports opportunities across the globe.  Small UK businesses set up between 2007-2014, for example, started to export with their first year of operation, far earlier than previously.

Today, cross-border sales are far more established and consumers are very comfortable buying from outside their home country. Global cross-border ecommerce saw a huge growth of 21% in online sales year-on-year from January to June 2020.


Takeaways for business

The global pandemic has caused and accelerated some massive shifts in society and online habits and behaviours.

While it’s never easy to predict the future and which of the changes will stick, some things seem pretty certain. Consumers are looking for value, and are exploring new brands, experiences and activities.

They are keen to discover new brands and retailers, and open to shoppping from new sources including outside their home countries.  Retailers with high online visibility, who provide an engaging and enticing experience using modern techniques such as virtual reality will score highly in customer discovery. Competitive pricing and value for money will encourage new sales and customer loyalty.

Shoppers increasinly welcome a hybrid experience, so retailers offering a high quality omnichannel experience which builds on the diverse strengths of the online and offline experience are likely to emerge as winners in the evolving retail environment.

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