This week, Lockdown Unlocked switched its attention to the world of shopping and retail. As many of the nations’ shops and stores shut their doors for the time being, we’ve been investigating how people’s shopping behaviours, attitudes and needs are changing during this extraordinary time. 

Combining insights from both our weekly nat rep quantitative tracker of 1,000 people across the UK and our online qualitative community of 40 people, here’s what we’ve been hearing.

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#1 Shopping has become more planned and purposeful 

People’s shopping baskets have changed in lockdown, and purchases are much more likely to be planned. The impulse buy, picked up while out and about, is a thing of the past, with people more likely to buy “productive” things they are finally getting round to (such as DIY or gardening), and items with a specific purpose of getting them through lockdown safely or lifting their mood, examples including vitamins, wine, coffee machines or sunloungers!

Other categories have been de-prioritised, with fashion and beauty products associated with going out especially taking a hit, as buyers see little point in spending money with the future of socialising so unpredictable. 

“It usually has something to do with 'productive' things and doing odd jobs I've been meaning to do for a long time. I bought a new hoover, some tools to fix broken things in my flat, a new shower head to replace the old one, items to put up my paintings, that kind of thing.”

“I’m a big shoe fan, but I’ve not bought a single pair of shoes in lockdown. Because what’s the point, I’m not going out? And when we get to go out what season will it even be?”

“I think that some items, which were never "essential" but would always have been bought regularly - thinking especially about clothes - may not bounce back at least for me. I appear to be quite happy wearing stuff I have had for years.......too much still in my wardrobes!”

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#2 Now is a time of retrenchment, not discovery

Few people are using this time to trial unfamiliar shops, with less than 1 in 5 people saying they have tried a new online retailer during lockdown.

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On our community, we’ve found that people are instead going to a few of the most familiar and most trusted sites. 

Shopping is more about buying things for now - food and “new essentials” - than enjoying browsing and discovery of products that might be useful in the future. 

Supermarkets and larger online retailers have become more important than ever. People are discovering more things to buy in their supermarket shop than they did before, such as more premium food and being pleasantly surprised by the value of supermarket clothes ranges.

“We have bought some clothes in Tesco which we would not have previously.”

“Everything seems to revolve around food at the moment. Food and Amazon, that’s my life right now!”

“I’ve definitely been sticking to Amazon more than usual… it has been my sole source of entertainment products.”

“Food has become a much bigger item on our agenda. I have to say, we both enjoy the food dept in Marks and Spencer, and make a pilgrimage there every Saturday, as the shelves are so well stocked. We now consider an M&S shop an essential item, pre covid, it was seen as a treat and therefore non-essential.”

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#3 Service gaps can be forgiven, but communication is key 

Customers are happy to grant companies a bit of leeway to overcome difficulties, with most people agreeing that they are more tolerant when it comes to delivery speeds or gaps in service.

Qualitatively, we’ve seen there’s an understanding that circumstances are exceptional, and some goodwill to spare for retailers seen to be doing their best, so long as gaps in service are well communicated. We are seeing people willing to put up with slower deliveries, or substitutes made in online shops. 

However there is a line, and shoppers are still critical of price hikes that are considered profiteering, or website crashes that make it frustrating or impossible to make a purchase. 

At a time when services may be strained, customer service is more vital than ever, to keep communication clear, honest and keep the customer ‘in the know’.

“Many companies are limiting the amount of orders per day to protect workers and delivery times have been longer - all of which is understandable. They have been transparent about this which has been really helpful.”

“I have seen countless online retailers hiking prices on home entertainment items. An example being Xbox controllers, which are currently £70 on [website] instead of the usual £50.”

“[Website] is appalling! You have to queue for literally hours to get access and then only get 10 minutes to do your order and then it often crashes. It's so bad"

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#4 Online shopping - it’s still not for everyone 

The idea that lockdown would encourage tech-phobic shoppers to embrace online is in question. Only a minority of people are feeling that online shopping is preferable - even more so for older generations, who are not necessarily even adopting new behaviours.

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On our online community, people suggested that items they could no longer buy in person were simply not being purchased, and they have been making do with the essentials. More vulnerable people who can’t go shopping in person at all, have often been relying on neighbours to shop for them in a much more analogue way!

“I rarely buy online so not having access to shops has resulted in me not shopping.”

“We actually shop for four households on our street…those who are a bit more vulnerable because they can't get out themselves and they don't really order online"

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#5 People are missing bricks & mortar retail, but are nervous about returning 

Bricks and mortar shopping is greatly missed, but equally, there’s a nervousness around returning to physical shopping environments.

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On our community, people describe the current in-store shopping experience as tense; people feel they have to be in and out, stick rigidly to their lists, avoid browsing, and have to shop individually. People miss shopping as a pastime and a pleasure, as a social or solitary activity; they are missing the experience of browsing, the impulse purchase, and the ability to take your time and not have to buy anything you’ve touched! 

At the same time, there’s a tension between the emotional pull of going to the shops and fears about whether it will be safe to do so in the near future. There’s a consensus that future shopping trips are likely to be fraught and anxious, with social distancing measures and cashless payment, and there’s little confidence shopping will return to normal.

“Physically going into the shops I absolutely hate now. It pushes my anxiety off the scale as I find it very stressful protecting myself and that I want to protect my family as well.”

“I am so looking forward to going to a shopping centre again and walking around the shops. Me and my boyfriend used to do this every weekend.”

“I don’t think the virus is going away anytime soon and people have no respect for others… it makes shopping more of a challenge.”

“My wife demonstrated products in Boots, that’s really difficult to do with social distancing. When she was still working it made her really anxious.”

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#6 It turns out that sometimes money can buy happiness 

One thing people are more willing to spend on in lockdown is anything that will lift their spirits. Over a third of people say they are buying more things that make them happy, with this behaviour particularly pronounced among 18-34s.

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“We did treat ourselves to a Lazy Spa, accepting the fact that we won't be going on holiday so this was a treat.”

“I am happy with the wee presents I have bought for those around me - wee daft things off of Etsy and the like - just to give people a wee pick-up.”

“We bought her dad a telescope, something he never thought he would have, something for sitting out in the garden in the evening, that's as a birthday present. We probably did spend a bit more, and I think that's probably because we feel that we've got a bit more money, because we're not going out as much"

Keep an eye out for our report next week, where we’ll be looking into travel and transport

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