Will the way we shop change forever after Covid?

We’re spending mindfully, shopping locally and treating ourselves more often

The results of the 2021 Sign of the Times survey by market research company Behaviour & Attitudes are published by The Irish Times today. The annual snapshot of Irish life combines quantitative and digital qualitative techniques with B&A published data on the economy, health, technology and shopping. The research was conducted in January and February 2021.

Over the last 12 months Irish consumers have been forced by circumstance to live through the greatest social upheaval in modern times with almost every aspect of life as we knew it upended.

Thousands of people lost their lives and many more became seriously ill. Hundreds of thousands saw their jobs disappear or put into cold storage while more again found themselves working from home, often in circumstances that were far from ideal.

Almost everyone was cut off from friends and family while virtually every other aspect of life outside the home, from eating out or going to a pub to boarding a plane or staying in a hotel, was suddenly off limits. Shopping, which has frequently been described as Ireland’s most popular leisure pursuit, was suddenly unpleasant, utilitarian, virtual and tinged with fear.

Queuing has become normal and no one leaves home without a stash of face masks and a bottle of hand sanitiser.

Since the start of the crisis, researchers and analysts have been poring over the runes – or maybe the ruins – to see what long-term impact the pandemic will have on our consuming life. This latest survey chimes with previous soundings pointing to an enduring Covid-19 effect.

It suggests that shopping has paradoxically become hyperlocal and increasingly distant as people have gone online in record numbers, with groceries now delivered to Irish homes at levels not seen since the 1950s before supermarkets changed the way we shopped.

Social solidarity when shopping has also come to the fore like never before as people consciously seek to spend their money with local businesses, albeit ones they might never visit as so much shopping is now done online.

It also notes a trend of “spending mindfully” with people describing a “sense of duty to invest in our local ecosystems”.

More than 50 per cent of those polled said this mindful spending – as opposed to the mindless kind many of us would have been more familiar with – will endure in the post-Covid era and they plan to switch at least some of their shopping to local businesses for the foreseeable future. That percentage climbs as people age, with two-thirds of those aged over 55 saying they plan to shop more locally in the future.

Successive shutdowns coupled with a reluctance to brush shoulders with potentially Covid-riddled strangers has seen online shopping accelerate at an astonishing rate over the last year and the survey finds that people now expect businesses – no matter how big or small – to be able to cater to their needs across multiple channels.

That expectation – as well as the lockdowns – forced many local shops that would have once said a move online was impossible to pivot and become mini-rivals to the likes of Amazon, Asos and Tesco.

Less processed food

The research also makes it clear that people are buying less processed food and working out how to cook more elaborate meals at home, which explains why baking aisles in Irish supermarkets are still frequently stripped of the ingredients few people would have shown much interest in as 2020 dawned.

Shopping lists have also changed. In the 2019 Sign of the Times survey, vegan and keto recipes were front and centre while smoothies, plant-based recipes and the Happy Pear lads all feature in the top 10 most-referenced foodie notions.

Fast forward to now and the shift to comfort food and cooking has been profound. Home-made brown bread and scones have replaced sterner vegan and keto plans, while daiquiris and margarita cocktails have nudged smoothies out of the way when it comes to fruit-based tipples.

The survey also suggests that while people say they are more mindful when they shop, they have also become more generous – to themselves at any rate – and are buying more treats and spending more on high-end products.

“We’re treating ourselves a bit more with our weekly shop,” one respondent to the survey told researchers. “Anything just to lift the mood really when you are a bit down from Covid.”

Another respondent rationalised their expensive slipper purchase by saying: “It makes sense to spend money on things like Ugg slippers, I literally wear them all the time.”

But while people say they are spending more on nice things for themselves and looking forward to spending money on holidays and meals out again when the world reverts, there is fear and reluctance there too.

With workplaces shut and shops shuttered, many people have got out of the habit of spending money with some 40 per cent of those polled saying they will spend less in the year ahead than they did in the one just past.

Finite capacity to care

The research also reveals our finite capacity to care. As the scale of the crisis became clear, people have become less concerned about environmental issues and more concerned about their own wellbeing.

But where do we go from here and how much will we change as a result of Covid?

“We have definitely changed as a result of the pandemic but the big question is how many of the changes will endure,” says retail analyst and academic at Technological University Dublin Damian O’Reilly. “I think many things will revert to the way they were in 2019 once we are through the crisis.”

He notes that retailers have reported their customers “are typically spending around 10 per cent more than what they would have on wine, so instead of spending €9 or €10 on a bottle they are spending €11 or €12”.

People are also shopping more elaborately. “They are going into a supermarket with a list, but it is not like the list their grandmothers might have had but a list of ingredients for a Heston Blumenthal or Gordon Ramsay recipe. Retailers have to respond to that by broadening the range of products they sell and if they don’t have the things people need, then the people will go somewhere else.”

He suggests how people are allowed to work in the future “will determine how much things change in the long term. The reliance on technology in our homes will grow but it will depend on broadband being better. Covid has accelerated changes that were already happening.”

Last autumn Dublin City Council launched what it dubbed a "15-minute city" which focused on creating liveable, walkable communities where people can live and access most of their daily needs within 15 minutes of active transport, such as walking or cycling.

The vision includes diverse housing options and access to safe cycle routes and local public transport, local health facilities, parks, shops and other infrastructure. “If the big changes will endure then they will need the backing of Government. This could be an opportunity to redefine how we live,” O’Reilly says.

“The local businesses that have done well can continue to do well but they will have to stay relevant. They will lose some business as people drift back to work but those losses can be minimised,” he says, with “sustainability and the environmental impact of consumer behaviour coming to the fore once more.”