Our shopping habits in the COVID world: what has changed?

Our shopping habits in the COVID world have changed in a way that none of us could have predicted.

Uncertainty continues as governments the world over juggle the need to relax restrictions to prevent further economic decline and hardship against a responsibility to keep us safe.

It takes just four weeks for new behaviour to become learnt behaviour and as life in the UK gets ever closer to ten months of restrictions, it is clear that the majority of us have massively changed a way of being embedded within us over decades of normal.

With governments constantly poised to introduce new rules and restrictions at short notice, our lives have become pre-occupied with the news and keeping safe.

Our right to undertake normal, enjoyable, everyday activities has been curtailed and the two most common ways of people enjoying themselves – meeting friends in cafes, bars and restaurants and retail therapy – are no longer a pleasant or desirable experience for most.

So has our shopping behaviour been permanently changed or will our old ways of old bounce back once restrictions are finally lifted?

The first lockdown in March saw an unprecedented change in shopping and eating behaviour.

The 30% of spend eating out of home shifted to the mainstream retailers.The daily shop disappeared with frequency decreasing not just to weekly but within a few weeks to monthly as individuals looked to keep their excursions from home to a minimum.

Ten months on, this behaviour is still with us with Tesco reporting a continued increase in the monthly shop – something that we left behind in the mid 80’s.

Consumers have become intent on stocking up and shopping less frequently and this increased single transaction spend of bigger shops has seen them become more cost conscious and frugal to the extent that the supermarkets culled numerous smaller brands and increased their stockholding of mainstream with a significant drop in the household budget for many translating into reduced purchasing of both premium and luxury products.

And a big winner of this change has been the frozen category which has seen sales rocket by 30% as shoppers have looked beyond the fridge and store cupboard – a subconscious nod to the isolation lockdown I wonder?

But what about online?  Before lockdown it  only accounted for 7% of supermarket shopping but that has increased to around 10% and is forecast to accelerate and increase further – envisaged as a fast forward five years in terms of the trend.

At the same time, the switch from eating and drinking out of home saw UK alcohol sales within retailing increase 117% by volume in April alone.

Inevitably there are generational differences with a massive 73% of millennials and Gen Z saying they will continue to buy more online post-pandemic but consumers across all age groups expect their new shopping habits to remain with them.

The demand for digital ordering has seen many companies rapidly transform the way they work. Iceland for example has increased its online capacity by over 250% meaning they are doing more deliveries a week than Ocado right now.

And with many individuals spending more time at home and less able to eat out with the closure of cafes and restaurants, there has been a huge increase in the preparation of meals at home with a big surge in scratch cooking too.

And this has been reinforced with huge swathes of the population no longer commuting to cities so urban coffee shops and food to go eateries have seen a significant reduction in trade as spend has switched to the places where people live rather than work – dormitory towns are a thing of the past.

So once the pandemic is behind us will the hospitality sector experience pent up demand?

Many individuals have not only discovered that they can cook but they have enjoyed doing so and it is most likely that the casual dining sector will suffer most as cost and quality comparisons have taken place and consumers have raised their bar in terms of their expectations and value for money.

And whilst it’s likely that we’ll get more confident about returning to normal life during the latter part of the first quarter of 2021, social distancing measures will suppress demand for some time to come as we have lost the spontaneity of treating ourselves to eating out whilst shopping for example.

Something that is irrefutable is that the pandemic has reset many of our values and lockdown life has curbed the desire of many to spend frivolously as we’ve gained a real appreciation of the things that cost nothing – the company of others.

We’re missing conversations, we’re missing casual interactions with our family and friends and for many now working remotely, we’re missing the environment of the workplace and the energy generating energy of being with colleagues. And more than anything we’re missing the hugs, the banter the handshakes and eye to eye contact.

Perhaps we’re beginning to realise that we don’t need as much stuff as we thought we did as many have become perfectly happy living without constant retail therapy … and whilst online has surged, overall spend is way down on pre-covid levels.

And whilst it is unlikely that we will see a permanent decline in consumerism once social distancing measure are relaxed, the brands that look really closely and carefully at their service levels, customer interaction and creating powerful, emotive connections with their audiences are going to be the ones to watch in the near future.

Last Updated on 10/06/2023 by Eddie Stableford

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