After nearly two years of disruption, the pandemic changed the way we shop for ever. It altered not only what we buy, but how we buy. Big purchases now require clicks, not shopping trips. Remote working turned the home interiors market into the new fast fashion and shifted our definition of a workplace. It also signalled the end of overwhelming choice for consumers as gaps appeared on retail shelves and long delivery times for items such as cars and sofas become a frustrating fact of life.
Lifestyle changes due to elevated health and environmental concerns helped new services get off the ground. Investors poured billions into rapid grocery delivery while buying second-hand clothes and furniture rental businesses became mainstream. The vulnerability of us as indviduals along with that of our planet became established in our psyche.
And on the high street, lower footfall led to lower property demand which in turn led to cheaper rents with units vacated by the chains becoming re-occupied by independent traders.
Here is a snap-shot of some of the changes influenced by the pandemic which are now embedded in our everyday lives:
Grocery shopping The pandemic caused major upheaval in the UK’s £212bn grocery industry. The return of the weekly shop during the strictest periods of lockdown looked as though it had saved the big supermarkets from a midlife crisis, only for an army of rapid grocery delivery firms, such as Getir, Gorillas and Jiffy, to emerge with the promise of delivering groceries in less than half an hour.
The IGD, the trade body for the food and consumer goods industry, said this so-called quick commerce has “exploded” on to the scene and is now a “channel in its own right”. It estimates 13% of UK shoppers now use these services, with sales hitting £1.4bn this year and on track to double within five. Research shows that the health crisis created the kind of market conditions where people were willing to pay a delivery fee for a £20, 15-minute, delivery experience.
The expanded online services offered by the big chains also won millions of new customers during the pandemic, but with inflation running at a 30-year high, the sands are shifting again, with discounters such as Aldi and Lidl the likely winners in the coming months as Britons seek out cheaper stores. And the cost of living crisis is shaping consumers choices too with own label products winning over brands (where comparable products are available) and the frozen category enjoying its highest growth ever.
And whilst there may be more ways to shop these days, the supply chain problems in the background during the pandemic prompted the major grocery stores to take a leaf out the discounters’ book and reduce their ranges to become more efficient. The pasta category is a good example of this. Pre-pandemic there were 60 or so pasta variants available in the multiple retailers but this reduced to 20 or so and whilst the level of variety has increased, it hasn’t returned to this level of choice. At the same time, the shelf space dedicated to vegan foods has increased significantly to meet demand. UK sales of meat-free and plant-based dairy products have roughly doubled over the past five years and are now worth close to £600m each. And as many of these products are presented as frozen, this has also influenced the growth in the frozen category.
Overall the meat-free category growth has been driven primarily by penetration gains. From 2016 to 2020, three million new shoppers bought into meat-free and 3.7 million shoppers came into the plant-based dairy market with percentage gains of 24% in 2020 and 26% respectively.
And whilst plant-based dairy continues to see strong penetration gains (2.1 million new shoppers entered the category in 2022), penetration growth in meat-free is plateauing and we are starting to see rejection of over-processed foods in favour of fresh and cook-at-home meal solutions.
Working from home The shift to home working had such a profound impact on how we live that it became a retail super-trend in its own right. It altered spending priorities, as money usually spent on foreign holidays or commuting were ploughed into home furnishings and revamps. Being home 24/7 also resulted in an acceleration of the shift to online shopping. It took eight years for online sales to double their share of spending to 20%, but within just nine months of the pandemic, that figure touched 36%.
And whilst it has fallen back in the new normal, it is still a substantial 26%. It is clear that working from home changed both the pattern of shopping and the pattern of demand. Sectors such as fashion, food, beauty and homewares have changed, but the question is, have they alighted on a new, permanent position? And it seems things are still somewhat fluid as no one knows right now what proportion of people are going to continue working from home – despite split work between home and office and the shortening of the office working week. Whilst not everyone’s job is home-based of course, the way we are socialising and shopping is much more centred around the home and local communities rather than urban.
We are travelling less far at the weekend for shopping trips or to eat out so we’re much more likely to be visiting local or independent stores. And in tandem with this, the profile of consumer spending has changed dramatically: for example, shoppers spent an extra £503m in DIY stores last year, according to figures from retail data firm Kantar. Britons also took up new pastimes: 1.2 million new gardeners spent an extra £51m on plants and related paraphernalia.
Fashion Britons swapped style for comfort during the pandemic with an 88% increase in loungewear sales in 2021. The closure of high street stores for long periods forced shoppers to buy the clothes they needed online and there is an indication that this behaviour change remains robust with estimates that half of the £51bn spent on clothing in 2021 was online. Come 2025, the indications are that this figure will be two-thirds of the total. This is already the case for home electricals, which has been one of the fastest markets to move online. There are other big forces at work in this market too. The fashion industry is a big polluter and under growing pressure to get itself on a more sustainable footing, so more companies are experimenting with selling second-hand clothes or even renting them out, a model that has previously focused on outfits for special occasions. As always, fashion-conscious teens got there first and are already spending their cash on second-hand clothes sites such as Depop and Vinted, which are reporting big sales increases.
Automotive The second-hand boom caused initially by the pandemic shortage of new vehicles is well established in the car market now, with soaring used car prices another contributing factor to inflation. Usually about 2.5 million new cars a year are registered in the UK but that number sank to 1.6 million in 2020 with a similar figure in 2022 year as the ongoing shortage of computer chips hit production and new vehicle delivery times continued to increase. But new car sales have now bounced back but with a change. In May 2023, 16.9% of all new car registrations were electric vehicles, with 24,513 new electric cars registered. With the UK vehicle stock at around 40m, EV’s now account for around 1.5m of these and data indicates month on month increases in the share of EV’s will strengthen further this year.
Stores The stream of household names that failed during the pandemic was extraordinary. Recent British Retail Consortium data shows the number of empty stores sitting at a record high of 14.5%. The crisis pulled rents down, but seriously high business rates remain a problem. There are glimmers of hope though, with the same data pointing to a declining vacancy rate in some regions as independents move in to fill the spaces left by defunct chain stores.
But change is likely to continue with £90bn of non-food sales having moved from bricks and mortar to online over the past 20 years, a period when there has been no real reduction in available store space.
And indeed, in the first 10 months of the pandemic, the increase in online retailing took it beyond its 10 year forecast. However, if high streets become more populated by local independents supported by vibrant food and drink retailing, then it’s possible that consumers will still find shopping trips ‘and a day in town’ attractive and it may be that high streets will become more interesting and eclectic.
Health The UK is one of the heaviest nations. It’s estimated 64 percent of British adults are now overweight, having a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or more. This includes around 28 percent who are obese (with a BMI of 30 or more), double the percentage figure in 1990, when obesity affected just 14 percent of British adults. More than 10 percent of obese people in the UK have a BMI of 35 or more. Our comparatively low intake of fruit and vegetables is a big contributor to this. Whilst few countries across the OECD consume the recommended five servings of fruit and vegetables each day, in the UK we eat significantly less than in some places where levels of overweight are lower. For example, last year we consumed an average 101kg of fruit and vegetables each, according to Euromonitor. This compares with 108kg in Switzerland, 113kg in the Netherlands and 160kg in Italy.
But the picture is changing. The increase in meat-free diets is re-shaping the relationship of many with foods and we also starting to view eating and sharing food as preferable as food for fuel. There is also an increase in label scrutiny too with many consumers rejecting processed foods which are high in un-recognisable ingredients, particularly emulsifiers and sweetners.
What is clear is that conscious consumerism is here to stay. Our individual vulnerability has made us focus on the vulnerability of our planet with looking after our personal heath and the environment more important than ever.