- Ecosystem regime shifts are regarded as abrupt global transitions from one stable state to an alternative stable state, induced by slow environmental changes or by global disturbances. Spatially extended ecosystems, however, can also respond to local disturbances by the formation of small domains of the alternative state. Such a response can lead to gradual regime shifts involving front propagation and the coalescence of alternative-state domains. When one of the states is spatially patterned, a multitude of intermediate stable states appears, giving rise to step-like gradual shifts with extended pauses at these states. Using a minimal model, we study gradual state transitions and show that they precede abrupt transitions. We propose indicators to probe gradual regime shifts, and suggest that a combination of abrupt-shift indicators and gradual-shift indicators might be needed to unambiguously identify regime shifts. Our results are particularly relevant to desertification in drylands where transitions to bare soil take place from spotted vegetation, and the degradation process appears to involve step-like events of local vegetation mortality caused by repeated droughts.