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Back to school: Consumer buying behaviours begin to shift as UK lockdown easing begins

12 Mar 2021

Capgemini Invent Consultant Lucy Herriot looks at the swings in demand for certain goods which have been triggered by the various stages of the pandemic, across both essential and non-essential retail.

Hello, and welcome to This Week in Retail! This week we look at some of the interesting and unexpected swings in demand for certain goods which have been triggered by the pandemic, across both essential and non-essential retail.

The last year has been full of many surprises (pleasant and unpleasant), including shortages and panic-buying of human essentials e.g. toilet roll, pasta, and tinned goods – but one unexpected twist to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic is a national pet food shortage gripping the UK. After many months stuck at home, we all know someone who has adopted a new furry friend to keep them company – but it seems the extent of the lockdown boom in pet ownership was underestimated even the experts.

Pets at Home, as well as the major UK supermarkets, are warning of a shortage of cat and dog food as suppliers are struggling to keep up with the surge in demand. US and EU retailers are also reporting shortages of certain types of pet food. It’s interesting to see another widespread retail market shift induced by the lockdowns, and it remains to be seen whether this will prove to be a longer term trend, but given that ‘pets are for life, not just Christmas’ it seems likely that the soaring demand for pet food may sustain for a good while yet.

Other in-demand items include school uniforms, stationary, and computers which consumers have been splashing out on as plans to ease lockdown were announced. Online demand for non-food items in February boomed 82.2% like-for-like on the same month last year, driving a total like-for-like retail sales rebound in February up 9.5% on last year, according to the British Retail Consortium.

Sales of essentials including pasta and toilet roll have however fallen back down to pre-pandemic levels – in fact, data released by research firm Nielsen this week show that during the final week of February toilet paper sales were down 12% like-for-like on last year, sales of dry pasta fell 18%, rice and grains by 15%, and canned or packet soup by 19% – all of us will be glad to see the back of the panic-buying and anxiety around shortages of these goods which we’ve witnessed (and sometimes been party to) over the past year! The rather sudden change in grocery shopping patterns has been attributed to improved consumer confidence as a result of the government’s lockdown exit roadmap and the UK vaccination rollout.

As the UK lockdown eases further, we’re likely to see further swings in demand for various goods – growth in demand for non-essential non-food items such as going-out clothes, holiday gear, and team sport equipment; and in later months drops in demand for the ‘pandemic essentials’ including hand sanitiser, face masks, etc – but things are still uncertain so any retailers which prove to accurately forecast consumer demand and build stock levels accordingly will deserve a round of applause at the end of the year!

Thanks for reading and have a good weekend.