Supermarket Peep: a glimpse at UK shopping behaviours in the now

24th April 2020

As we sit in our make-shift offices, attempting to keep a work-life balance and ponder where we will go on our permitted once daily exercise, it’s hard to walk past the local parade of shops or high street and not wonder when or even if normality will ever be the same again.

As everyone yearns for a safe return to normality, analysis of major GB data sources for grocery retail illustrates the significant changes we have seen in shopping behaviour over the last 6 weeks. It demonstrates when these changes were most profound, where they were happening and indicates that in the most recent weeks that overall retail spend is starting to stabilise.

The retail landscape: winners and losers

The current pandemic has had a devastating effect on bricks-and-mortar retailers and the High Street.  Many retailers are still operating their e-commerce sites, reporting increased traffic and sales, but others such as Next and River Island were forced to close online operations due to difficulties protecting warehouse staff – although both are back open albeit with limited service.  We have also seen retailers such as Debenhams and Cath Kidston, calling in administrators during the Covid-19 crisis, the final blow after experiencing difficulties before the current crisis.

On the flip side grocers and supermarkets are reporting huge sales increases. The latest retail sales figures from Information Worldwide (IRI) best demonstrates the changes seen in grocery shopping behaviour.

Total UK sales year on year were consistent up until late February, but as the effects of COVID 19 took hold in early March, people’s shopping behaviour changed overnight. Stockpiling spiked between 8–21 March as consumers feared government lockdown which started on 23rd March. Seasonal factors also played a part in spend increases with good weather and Easter weekend falling earlier in 2020.

Data from Kantar shows that people weren’t necessarily spending a huge amount more in the main weekly shops (approx. £19 more), but that they were just going to the supermarkets much more often, usually to different supermarkets each time to try and locate in-demand items.

A nation of baking and beer

When we look at different product categories and regions and when and where spend has changed over the six weeks during March to mid-April, things get interesting.

Unsurprisingly, sales of home baking goods have also increased, but at a completely different time. The increases didn’t occur until April, when consumers needed to start entertaining themselves and their kids or chose to practise this life skill.  Sales increased a staggering 43% in the two weeks to 12 April, with Scotland (+79%) and Lancashire (+72%) leading the way. London also embraced this new trend, but to a lesser degree with sales increases of 31%.

One thing every region in Great Britain has in common is its love of booze.  Combined with the bank holiday and warm weather, sales of Beer, Wine and Spirits (BWS) grew by 18% from the start of March to mid-April, with all regions similarly increasing between 17%-20%.

The biggest increase was seen in sales of the beer category (lager, Ale, Stout, Cider & Perry) at +29% across the full period, with dramatic increases as the realisation of imminent pub closures took hold (+57%) and in the week leading up to Easter bank holiday weekend (+60%).  Northern England was the region that appeared to stockpile beer the most in the week before lockdown (+68%), whilst the Midlands appeared most excited about the Easter break with beer sales increasing (+72%).

Not all advertisers and product categories in supermarkets however have experienced sales increases. Declines have been seen in categories such as lunch products, newspapers and magazines, cosmetics, and fragrances to name a few.  With nowhere to go and no one to meet, and a focus on the essential shopping items, it’s no surprise that fragrances sold in supermarkets have experienced a staggering 70% decrease in the first two weeks in April and a 35% decrease during the total six week period.  Similarly, and sadly, print media is also suffering.  As commuting is limited and people remain at home, TV, radio and the internet have been attracting record-breaking audiences and become the go-to sources for news and entertainment.

Going local

Travel to supermarkets and grocery stores has continued through lockdown. The day, time and frequency of trips has likely changed, but less than 10% of all grocery sales in recent weeks have taken place online. £9 in £10 spent (90%) is still taking place in physical stores, much of which is now taking place locally. Since the UK enforced lockdown on 23rd March, swathes of people have been staying at home for longer and remaining in their local area when they do go out. Google’s mobility data shows a 15% increase in activity at residence to the end of March.

As a result, local convenience stores, especially the independents such as Nisa, Londis and Spar have seen the largest sales uplifts, reporting phenomenal year-on-year sales growth of 45% in the four weeks to 22nd March, 20.6% ahead of the industry, when March has recorded the biggest month of grocery sales ever. These extra top-up trips to local stores, some 42 million additional trips, have given local independent businesses a more important role than ever – not only helping us to find essentials for ourselves and vulnerable relatives, but also in the growing ‘spirit’ that has emerged in communities.  It is these businesses that have often gone above and beyond to ensure those that need help receive it and their contribution will be remembered long after this crisis has ended.

We have also seen fantastic innovation and forward-thinking from brands to help local communities and find alternatives to physical retailers while shops have been closed.  Superdrug has launched a same day delivery opportunity via courier for customers that live in an 8-mile radius of their stores. New partnerships have also emerged, with McColl’s, another community-based retailer, partnering with Deliveroo to offer a home delivery service across a wide range of everyday essentials from its 300 stores nationwide. Deliveroo has also now seen over 3,000 new restaurants sign up to its service in the past month.

Advertising has never needed to be more aware of itself than now

Lots has already been said about advertising during the pandemic. For many brands and retailers, its simply not the right time. For those that do continue, it is imperative that they tread carefully.

Locally based service and information messages are one way to stay active, if it is relevant and reflective of a brand’s core values, and out of home is in a unique position to help, embedded in local communities across the country and acting like a ‘community noticeboard’.  A great example is the Co-op’s latest work paying tribute to local heroes as part of its partnership with the charity FareShare.

They key to any advertising right now is tone, while creativity is also essential.  New or existing TVC and advertising assets may have been expensive but if they feel out of touch with the current reality, save them or adapt them.  McCain Foods has done just that by adding a new and relevant voiceover to existing assets to great effect.

The near future

IRI Worlwide’s most recent two weeks’ worth of data suggests that overall grocery spend is returning to some form of normality as the panic buying and stockpiling subsides. With circumstances changing quickly, these small but significant changes in shopping trends are important indicators of changing consumer behaviour , so in our next paper, analysing the “near” within the Grocery and Shopping category, we’ll be looking at when and how FMCG product lines and retail brands might be able to come back into the market …

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