Since the spring of last year people have been forced by Covid-19 to live through the greatest social experiment in modern times, with almost every aspect of life as we knew it turned on its head.
Many thousands of people in this country died and many more became seriously ill. Jobs disappeared or were mothballed, while many hundreds of thousands found themselves working from home, without notice.
Family contacts were severely curtailed and 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 the table. Shopping became difficult, utilitarian, full of fear or virtual.
We are not through the crisis yet, although the outlook is more optimistic. Hotels opened last week, pubs and restaurants will reopen this week, travel could take off next month and with the vaccine rollout is gathering pace, so there are reasons to be cheerful.
So Pricewatch thought we might use the bank holiday to look at how the pandemic has shaped and changed us as consumers and dust down the crystal ball to see if many – or any – of the changes will endure.
While much praise has been heaped on the shoulders of frontline healthcare workers – and deservedly so – there was another cohort of workers who kept the show on the road. In times past people might not have regarded supermarket workers as essential to the smooth and orderly working of our lives. But from the very start of the pandemic, when people were panic-buying toilet roll and flour and stripping shelves of manky tinned tuna, the people manning the tills and stocking the shelves in your local Dunnes, Tesco, SuperValu, Lidl, Aldi M&S, Spar, Centra, AllCare, Boots, McCauleys and every single other shop selling food, medicines and essential items have been key players in our collective fight against coronavirus.
While almost every other worker was able to work from home – at least those who were fortunate to keep their jobs – the people who staffed these shops risked their own health day in, day out to make sure we didn’t go off the edge entirely.
In pre-Covid times, there weren’t many people who relished the thought of getting up at ridiculous o’clock to race to an airport to stand shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other people in queues to get checked in, pass through security and board planes.
Like spoiled teenagers, we moaned about bad airline food and the Ryanair jingle when a plane successfully landed, and we gave out about 15 minute delays and the odd bit of turbulence. The numbers travelling through Irish airports are a tiny fraction of what they were this time two years ago, and most of the people who have been confined to this island since March 2020 would most likely crawl over broken glass to be frisked by security staff and offered bunches of scratch cards by mostly cheery cabin crew dressed all in blue.
Retail revolution part 1
When the crisis started, Ireland was most definitely lagging behind in the online retail race. Shopping online was popular among many, for sure, but there were as many, if not more, who just couldn't be bothered with it.
There were also far too many retailers across the country who had shut their eyes and put their fingers in their ears in an attempt to ignore the online juggernaut that was bearing down on them. But then suddenly shops had to close and pivot – to use one of the words of 2020 – to a completely different way of reaching customers. While big players such as Amazon and Asos have benefited hugely from the mass migration online, one of the more heartening things about the pandemic has been the manner in which Irish businesses started selling online. According to the recent Sign of the Times survey by market research company Behaviour & Attitudes, shopping has paradoxically become hyper-local 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.
Not only did indigenous shops start competing with the big players, they often matched them when it came to prices and speed of delivery. And they were also able to add personal touches that you will never find when dealing with a multinational giant. Who knew a personalised note sent with an order could mean so much?
Retail revolution part 2
As people spent more time in their local communities, they started discovering local shops and spending more money in them. Instead of mourning the loss of greengrocers and butchers and booksellers and off-licences from their neighbourhoods, people started shopping in them. When fighting an invisible enemy, many of us realised that one of the few weapons we had was a degree of social solidarity when it came to spend. We can only hope that sense of loyalty to local continues once the crisis lifts.
Retail revolution part 3
Irish consumers have been buying Irish products in supermarkets in huge numbers since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, with leading local brands recording growth of almost 20 per cent, according to recent research published by retail analysts Kantar. It indicated that 44 of the 100 top-selling take-home grocery brands in the Republic during 2020 were Irish produced, recording growth of 18 per cent to a total of €1.07 billion in combined sales. These brands capture 48 per cent of the money spent among the 100 top-selling take-home grocery brands in Ireland.
We might be imagining it but we reckon people have become more empathetic.
There used to be people who didn’t wash their hands from the moment they hopped out of the shower in the morning to the moment they went to bed at night. There were also people who figured that all that was needed was a quick rinse under a cold tap, a wave at a soap dispenser and a rub on a pair of jeans and they were good to go. You know who you are. Now we are all sanitising every 15 minutes and washing our hands with the assiduousness of heart surgeons heading into the operating theatre. This is a good thing.
Masking for it
In early March 2020, Pricewatch went on a trawl of pharmacies looking for face masks for a piece we were writing on chronic shortages and sky-high prices. Masks were selling for €3 each or more. It was a scandal. Then supply increased and prices fell and masks were suddenly everywhere. We might soon be through the current crisis but the sight of people wearing masks is likely to be with us for a while yet.
Fast fashion slows
While the queues outside Penneys each time the retail giant has reopened after a period of lockdown suggests that our love of cheap clothes has not gone away, it seems likely that many people have realised they can probably do without shopping on a weekly basis and maybe get more wear out of the clothes they actually have.
We mentioned this already but it is worth mentioning again. More people have more consciously sought to spend their money with local businesses. The Sign of the Times survey noted 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 – would endure beyond the pandemic, and they planned 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.
Our takeaways have come a long way. Not long ago the options for Irish people were confined to pizza, Chinese, Indian and Thai. And we were happy with that, but with restaurants closed for months on end, many moved into the takeaway space and people have come to expect fine dining delivered straight to their door. It might have gone a bit too far when takeaways came with tweezers and lengthy videos to help us plate up, but at least it was something to lift the gloom.
In times past Irish people were surely among the worse queuers in the world. Forming orderly lines and patiently waiting our turn was not really in our DNA in the same way, say, that forming a disorderly scrum and fighting with the grim determination of extras from the Hunger Games as we tried to make it to the top of the line to order a pint or get on a bus was. Now we are willing – if not necessarily happy – to wait our turn before being allowed in shops or to order a drink. Who knows if our almost Canada-like love of queuing will persist?
It started with banana bread and sourdough and has carried on through the course of the crisis. According to that Sign of the Times survey, Irish 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 featured 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.
Forty shades of green
Green fingers are an unusual side-effect of Covid-19, with interest in gardening blooming across Ireland like never before since the start of the crisis. Spending on gardening hit a record high last year. We spent €1.2 billion on gardens – up more than 50 per cent on the 2018 figure and 14 per cent higher than the previous record level of spending recorded in 2008, according to a biannual horticulture report from Bord Bia published this spring.
The growth was driven by a 75 per cent increase in spending on garden products such as barbecues, sheds and other garden accessories as people rushed to build and redevelop one of the few outdoor spaces they were allowed to safely frequent last year. Spending on garden maintenance rose 57 per cent as people also appeared more willing to take on DIY jobs they had previously left on the long finger. There was a 51 per cent increase in spending on outdoor plants, while spending on herbs, fruit and vegetables hit its highest level since measurement began 20 years ago.
Demise of cash
One of the last articles Pricewatch wrote before Covid hit was about Ireland's slow move towards a cashless society. Almost as soon as it appeared the slow started getting faster. In the first quarter of this year 320 million card payments were made in Ireland while the use of ATMs to take cash out fell by 44 per cent. Contactless payments volumes by contrast jumped 12.9 per cent to almost 149 million, according to figures compiled by Banking and Payments Federation Ireland (BPFI). The growth in contactless payments has been largely driven by migration from cash payments at the point of sale. In-store contactless payments, which includes payments with cards as well as mobile wallets such as Apple Pay or Google Pay, made up 47 per cent of first-quarter payments.
Irish households saved a remarkable €14.9 billion in the 12 months to the end of April to bring total deposits to €131 billion. Deposits increased by €2.2 billion last month, versus a €3 billion net inflow for April 2020, which was the first full month of strict Covid restrictions in the Republic. Households also made significant repayments of credit totalling €242 million over the past year, versus drawdowns of €1.1 billion in the 12 months prior to April 2020.
What fresh hell? No, working from home, of course. When it comes to working from home in the months and years ahead it is unclear what will happen. What we do know is that people will not be returning to their offices in great number for months yet and the Government is planning a national remote-work strategy, which should see remote working at least some of the time becoming a long-term option for many people. According to the Central Statistics Office, more than 60 per cent of people want to see a mix of working from home and from the office in future, while one in six want to go back to the office full time and one in four would like to work exclusively from home. That should continue to reshape our world, make our local communities better and our lives happier.
At least we will have Covid to thank for that.