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More vegan food, less deodorant: The effects of the pandemic on UK consumption patterns

15 Feb 2021

This blog post explores the developments in consumer behaviours and, in turn the sales of various consumer goods and raises considerations of long-term sustainability goals.

The majority of us would say that our current reality is increasingly limited to the walls of our home. It goes without saying that this is an increasingly hard time for us all and there are many aspects to lockdown which significantly affect our lives, with many areas particularly hard-hit by local and national lockdowns. In light of this, I will attempt to uncover a more positive angle – the restrictions have pushed us to build new realities and increasingly perceive our home as an ecosystem for our well-being. New behaviours and habits are established, and existing ones – altered. As you would expect, these shifts cause changes in our individual consumption patterns as well. Although we tend to perceive ourselves as highly unique individuals, all with our own personal lives, interests and beliefs, the context in which we live is the same. This context, despite our uniqueness, drives some universal behaviour patterns and in turn, certain consumption patterns.

Experimental results from the pilot Office for National Statistics (ONS) online time-use study looked at how differently we spent time in the period between 28 March to 26 April 2020 in comparison to findings from the 2014 to 2015 UK time-use study. Unsurprisingly, the largest shifts have been in free time and time spent on entertainment and socialising, work patterns and travelling. Here one can start deconstructing elements of our daily lives and assess how these aforementioned trends have shifted these.

Workplace habits

Image source: Pexels
Image source: Pexels

Needless to say, the government’s guidelines on restricting movement have caused a significant proportion of us to work from home, with 31% working from home exclusively as per the Wave 36 of the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN), up from 27% in early November. Office-based occupations requiring higher qualifications and experience were more likely to work from home with over two-thirds of employees (69.7%) doing some work at home. This has a major effect on several areas of retail. Firstly, local economies that heavily rely on office workers have seen a major impact according to the Centre for Cities, thinktank. In particular, it is not just simply the reliance on office workers, but on the culture around office work that drives this. Many will agree that a very significant part of the culture is food and drink. Nipping out for a quick coffee and a protein chia pot in the morning, nearby pub lunches on Fridays, and Thursday after-work drinks. There are reasons why Pret a Manger has been trending on Twitter and made headlines several times throughout this year, including some pretty bleak ones for the brand and its QSR traditional offer. However, at the end of the day, spending above £7 for a sandwich and a coffee – will become an old reality for many, something that is unlikely to return to its full extent any time soon, if at all.

Clothing habits

Secondly, fashion retail. One of the most heavy-hit industries across the globe is fashion, with high-street retailers affected the most. The boarding up of stores is now a regular occurrence with an estimate of up to 18,000 units closing in 2020, and many brands having to rethink their strategy and address the future of their business. At the heart of this trend is that our clothes and outfit choices mark certain occasions and moments of everyday life, and many of these have disappeared in the current reality. Going into the office, going on a night-out and other key celebrations in the year – Christmas parties, weddings, birthdays – our opportunities to dress up have decreased. This is exacerbated by people being discouraged to simply just leave the house. Flip the coin however, online fashion retail is seeing strong performance, and it is easy to guess what there is demand for. Retailers such as ASOS and Sports Direct report growing sales in loungewear and sportswear, and resulting in shortages of items such as leggings, hoodies and trainers. With no online presence, Primark has seen £2bn in lost sales, and it report a “weak” demand for men’s formalwear, in contrast to increased sales of nightwear, leisure and children’s clothing compared to before the pandemic.

Consumption habits

This brings us nicely to our new reality – at home. As we spend more time indoors, this provides us with a new purpose and ways of experiencing food, clothing and other aspects of our lives. We are switching shirts and blazers for sweatshirts and leggings. We are switching our double espressos and Coco di Mama for boiling the kettle to make a cuppa and cooking up our own homemade pasta. Interestingly, when we look at people searching for “pasta recipes” on Google Trends, we see that search volumes peaked in the week commencing 29th of March and have continued to remain higher than usual in comparison to periods in prior years.

Source: Google Trends
Source: Google Trends

Our needs remain, yet our circumstances have changed. In fact, many are rediscovering the joys of cooking at home. All food retailers are seeing growth in both sales and customers per latest study by Kantar. Ocado in particular has increased the number of customers using its online platform in the latest period and it is not the only retailer to do so. It is interesting to note what is increasingly being bought. Mintel reports show increased sales of dressings and condiments, and many brands report increased sales of cooking sauces, gravies and stock cubes – all part of creating a full meal. Ready-made meal sales however are plummeting as a result of this. Unilever also reports increased at-home sales of ice-cream and increases in tea sales with more in-home occasions to enjoy the refreshments.

Image: Pexels
Image source: Pexels

As we spend more time in touch with the food we consume, we are becoming increasingly conscious of how we consume as well. A survey commissioned by the RSA’s Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC), together with food charity The Food Foundation found that 42% of people surveyed said that the outbreak has made them value food more and 33% are throwing away less food. Several retailers have reported above-average growth rates for their organic ranges and over 500 British vegetable box providers delivered 3.5 million boxes of fresh produce to homes – more than double their usual sales, diversifying where we get our food from. In run-up to Christmas, expect to see vegan “no turkey” roast crowns and sticky toffee puddings as 26% of Britons plan to eat more plant-based foods this year.

These are positive trends, however this raises some serious questions about the environmental impact of how we receive our goods. As we rely more heavily on online retailers to deliver our food shopping and latest leggings and trainers, retailers need to become increasingly more responsible for the sustainability of their supply chains and delivery networks. Many are already tackling this and focusing on decarbonising the last mile. Electric fleets, night-time deliveries and optimisation of van loads play significant part in improving delivery efficiency. This, alongside future innovations in creating a more sustainable supply chain is key in helping UK reach the target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Moreover, it is also important to pay attention to our homes too – our energy consumption, water consumption and how we dispose of our waste. The pandemic has highlighted aspects of our lives that previously went unnoticed. It is important to continue our focus on living sustainably beyond the food we put in our mouths and clothes we put on our body.

Oh, and one final interesting trend that we have noted is that less people are buying and using deodorant. Perhaps that is one aspect that many of us have kept more private.