A behavioural shift: The impact of the pandemic on retail

June 18, 2020 2:48 pm

A behavioural shift: The impact of the pandemic on retail

Lockdown is easing but should we be expecting a return to normality anytime soon? In a recent survey, we asked 1452 UK residents how they felt about the easing of lockdown in relation to their shopping habits. 72% said their attitudes towards shopping in physical stores has changed, as concerns of safety measures make them feel ‘anxious’ and ‘nervous’ and the ‘ease’ and ‘convenience’ of online shopping outweigh the effort.

It’s clear consumer attitudes and behaviours are changing. As human beings, we’re incredibly responsive to the environment around us, so here we see how changing contexts are making way for shifts in behaviour. In this article, we’ll share current attitudes towards shopping based on survey responses and then take a look at other emerging trends in the retail sector.

We found…

The public are divided over the easing of lockdown, and a return to normality seems a long way off

We set out to understand how people felt about the easing of lockdown restrictions in relation to their shopping habits. The overall reaction was mixed as 36% felt it would be ‘good’ for things to get back to normal whilst 35% felt it’s far ‘too early’.

But regardless of lockdown easing, responses suggested we’re still a long way off from ‘normality’. Removal of social distancing and queuing in-stores were the two key factors signalling a return to normality for over half of respondents. For some others, factors such as a reduction in Covid-19 or the presence of a vaccine (16%), and safe travels (e.g. public transport and holidays) (7%) were deemed essential for ‘normality’ to return, none of which we’re likely to see anytime soon.

The majority feel their attitudes have changed towards visiting physical stores, and 91% depend on online shopping during lockdown

72% of respondents admitted that their attitudes towards visiting physical stores have changed. They explained visits to the shop post-lockdown will be done with caution and are likely to provoke feelings of anxiety and stress. Safety measures are still considered essential and there’s some concern this may take the enjoyment out of visiting the high street.

“I think it will still feel a lot more anxiety provoking, even when this all subsides. It’s forced us to be more aware of our closeness to others, and I don’t think that will disappear.”

It’s good news for online retailers, as 91% of respondents also said they’ve depended on online shopping during lockdown. For many, lockdown has revealed the ease and convenience of shopping online from the safety of their own home. The perceived pitfalls of online shopping have been overcome, with consumers realising the joy and excitement of being able to browse for the best deal and getting it delivered to their doorstep.

“I’m 75 and not having to queue or go into shops has meant that online shopping, which I have never before done for groceries has felt safer & been a real bonus.”

But for the remaining 28%, returning to physical stores was deemed essential to get the economy back on its feet. The physical shops allow for social interaction the public have missed, and so long as safety measures are observed, we should return with confidence. For some this coincided with the frustrations of online shopping, as 57% felt limited delivery slots and premium charges had been a barrier to their online success. Some also explained the frustration of not being able to pick “the best one” and missing out on the physical experience of checking ingredients or trying on clothing which cannot be replaced online.

“Life must go on, sometimes its easier to go into a physical shop to find what I need.”

Knowledge of safety measures is essential for the reopening of non-essential shops, restaurants and cafes

When it comes to non-essentials, caution is a little higher. Although 72% of respondents may consider returning to non-essential shops, and 74% to restaurants and cafes, in both cases over half of respondents said they would need to see the safety and social distancing measures first before deciding whether it was worth it.

Cinema visits are a little further off

46% of respondents felt that even after lockdown is eased, they’ll be avoiding cinemas. Given the nature of these venues, it’s likely the public are concerned about how social distancing measures can possibly be maintained. The rest of the arts sector are currently undergoing similar concerns, with social distancing meaning limited capacity in venues, and a worry that that the public will opt for new-found home entertainment rather than risking a trip to the cinema or theatre.

What else is changing?

A desire to shop local

More convenient, and better stock, independent shops and convenience stores have become crucial suppliers of essentials during the pandemic. There’s also been a great rise in support for grassroot companies, as 63% are making a conscious effort to buy local. Success has been particularly prominent for the businesses who have been nimble enough to adapt to social media advertising and offer local delivery services.

A new focus on health

It’s no surprise that the current climate has led to the introspection of one’s health. With gyms closed and being limited to one dose of daily exercise, people have had to turn to other means of getting fit. Being less mobile and spending more time in the home means that diets have also come under close inspection, with the likes of Slimming world and food boxes like Gousto and Hello Fresh seeing a great influx in subscriptions. Coming out of lockdown, many gym-goers (62%) have said they’d feel uncomfortable returning, suggesting current trends are set to continue and providing a great opportunity for consumer companies to communicate the health value of their products.


Increased attention on personal finance

With spending habits changing and for many, household income sadly compromised, we’re paying more attention to our finances. In a poll conducted by Nationwide building society, 32% claimed they’d think more carefully about what they purchase following lockdown. These circumstances have forced the public to think about what’s ‘essential’ with 31% looking to cut back on non-essential shopping post-lockdown, and 21% to spend less money on going out (Independent). These attitudes, as well as more time to become value conscious whilst shopping online means consumers have become particularly price-sensitive and businesses will need to take this into consideration to appeal to post-pandemic audiences.

Time for retailers to adapt

Although the UK consumer market has been evolving quickly for some time, the last 3 months have undoubtedly triggered a transformation in behaviour. We’ve seen a virtual shift to online shopping, a reduction in indulgent consumption, and a rise in essential purchases.

There’s unlikely to be a single sector or business who isn’t impacted by this in some way, but consumption will never disappear, it’s just going to change, so now is the time to understand how behaviours are changing and understand how you can adapt. Here’s 3 key steps we recommend:


  • Find out how your target audience are spending and what they want


  • As it stands does your business suit consumer needs? Use this time to plan what you could do to adjust your proposition in line with behaviours
  • Consider the channels you provide and review the perceived value of your offering


  • With a fresh user-centred approach you’ll be ready to open your doors (physically or virtually) to the post-pandemic consumer

To find out more about the UK public’s perspective, you can download our full survey report here.

If you’d like to find out more about how we can use similar methods to uncover the changing behaviours of your consumers, please contact judith@simpleusability.com.