Since March 2020, market research specialist Market Measures has been running its own Covid-19 tracker survey to monitor the evolving mood of the nation throughout the pandemic.
Charting the effects of the pandemic on consumer behaviour from March 26, 2020 through to May 16, 2021 in its latest report [based on information gathered from over 11,500 people], Market Measures uncovered that as the nation prepared to move into the next phase of lockdown easing from May 17 - which saw the return of indoor hospitality - there was a sustained rise in positivity and optimism within the national mood, as well as signs of lasting change to our working lives.
Market Measures CEO John Gurd told The Leaders Council: “People are definitely becoming more confident being around other people. The mood and mental health of the nation is on the rise and people are ready, willing, and eager to embrace this next phase of easing of restrictions.
“With regards to our professional lives, we are also seeing that working patterns are unlikely to return to pre-pandemic norms, with 53 per cent of office workers both hoping and expecting to continue working from home to some degree in the long-term. Three in every four office workers have also commented that they want to continue working remotely at least part-time after the pandemic ends.”
The hospitality sector
Despite speculation around new Covid variants featuring heavily in news headlines over recent weeks, consumer sentiment according to the survey has been consistently and increasingly positive since early April, while levels of optimism around personal life and finances is also on the rise.
Certainly, since the hospitality sector resumed outdoor service on April 12, the survey has seen a significant bounce in consumer sentiment.
Gurd explained: “Since April 12, we’ve already seen around one-third of people return to stores to buy clothing and footwear, and half of all adults have been visiting a hospitality venue.
“Now that we are allowed to shop with friends and drink and dine inside, we should see an even stronger return to these physical spaces over the coming weeks when we start to chart data from May 17.”
Indeed, the survey indicated that more than half of adults in the UK now feel comfortable about visiting hospitality venues, with six in ten adults keen to visit such venues when indoor service resumes.
Enthusiasm to return to pubs, cinemas and restaurants is highest among younger people, with two-thirds of 18-34-year-olds having already visited a hospitality venue since April 12 when outdoor service resumed.
However, for older age groups, returning to hospitality venues is likely to take further time and encouragement.
Gurd said: “Older people do need to start feeling comfortable before going out again. However, they have also gotten themselves out of the habit of going out and found other things to do to entertain themselves. They also fear hospitality will not yet be the same as pre-pandemic, so maybe want to wait until the June milestone, at which point hopefully all social restrictions can be lifted.
“On the whole, therefore, we do expect to see an immediate bounce back towards pre-pandemic levels of attendance, but a full recovery will take time and is unlikely to be universal across age groups. Cultural venues and events will also be welcomed back with open arms among the 45 per cent of adults who used to frequent them and are looking forward to their re-opening.”
According to the latest survey, grocery shopping as an activity feels largely normal again with people having grown accustomed to Covid-secure protocols that have now been in-place for more than one year.
Gurd commented: “A trip to the supermarket holds far less of a feeling of dread compared to a year ago. In terms of trends, we have seen that while people often prefer shopping in physical retail spaces for food and non-food products, the pandemic will inevitably lead to more money being spent online than ever was the case before Covid struck.”
Exploring consumer habits more deeply, the tracker survey acknowledges that year-on-year, UK consumers have strengthened their intentions to “buy local” and stick to British food produce, as well as eating more healthily by seeking out lower sugar, lower salt, and lower fat products with more natural ingredients.
Gurd added: “It suffices to say that the want to buy local and seek out more healthy food has become a ‘sticky’ behaviour, and these tendencies are likely to endure post-pandemic. So overall, as a nation, one positive to come from these previous 14 months is a healthier attitude and aspiration when it comes to buying and preparing food.
“People are also cooking more from scratch, although this is showing signs of waning as life gets busy again and time for planning and cooking meals is more limited. We have seen in the survey that since January this year, the proportion of households cooking meals from scratch and trying new recipes has been in decline.”
Meanwhile, shorter-term switches in consumer habits from nearer the start of lockdown, such as purchasing in bulk, buying pre-packed fruit and vegetables and meal planning appear to have faded, according to the latest findings.
The survey shows that consumers have been eager to return to physical retail environments, and the proportion of those going to stores to purchase clothing and footwear has seen a sharp increase week-by-week since April 12.
In fact, footfall is now at its highest level since the tracking survey began in late March 2020.
Gurd commented: “It seems people are happy to be able to return to physical retail settings. We are seeing younger, more affluent households with children in particular embracing that opportunity and ‘switching bricks for clicks’. 45 per cent of people in the 16-to-34 age bracket have been purchasing in store since April 12, versus 50 per cent doing so online.”
Since the successful rollout of the vaccine and the easing of restrictions in April, consumer confidence over safety when in shops and crowded places has increased and more people are beginning to see a point in buying clothing and footwear again now they are permitted to venture outside.
Gurd continued: “We are starting to be allowed out again. We can meet friends and family indoors. We can go out wearing nice clothes rather than warm clothes. All of this means people have a motivation to go and spend on clothes. Everything is moving in the right direction in this sense.
“The further easing of restrictions in May now allows for more sociable shopping with friends which will hopefully further re-invigorate our High Streets and be reflected in the data next time around.”
Although purchasing online has surged in popularity during the pandemic, shopping in-store for clothing and footwear has remained the preference for the majority of people according to the survey. Market Measures forecasts, therefore, that a strong return to stores can be expected, but some category spend will be permanently lost to the online domain.
Based on Market Measures’ findings on attitudes toward ethics and sustainability, Gurd has called on retailers and manufacturers to sharpen their approach and messaging around such issues if they wish to be successful in the post-Covid world.
“More than one-third of consumers claim to be influenced by ethics and sustainability when deciding where to shop for clothing & footwear; a figure which increases to 50 per cent among younger people. This is a critical message to retailers and one they must take heed of.”
Although the nation is beginning to tentatively edge toward normality, Gurd believes that uncertainty around international travel will remain an enduring theme and act as a driver of UK domestic tourism over the remainder of 2021.
“Holiday planning remains something of a rollercoaster as restrictions and guidance change from one week to the next. With the various issues associated with booking a holiday abroad, in the short-term we are likely to see a bumper season for domestic tourism.
“The survey shows that 65 per cent of people do not like the idea of leaving the UK until the pandemic settles down, while 60 per cent said that they were perfectly happy to holiday in the UK this year. This is largely down to a lack of clarity on safe destinations abroad and what the requirements for international travel are likely to be. There is also the likelihood of lengthy delays at airports which seems to be putting a lot of people off.”
Yet, as restrictions do continue to be eased, Gurd acknowledged that there is a hardcore contingent of people uncovered by the survey who are eager to venture abroad at the earliest possible opportunity.
“Despite the lack of confidence and clarity around where we can go and what the rules are, at the time this report was put together, 15 per cent of people had an overseas holiday booked abroad. On the flipside, 27 per cent have a UK holiday already booked.”
Out of a total 30 per cent of households that suggested they were eager to holiday abroad at the earliest opportunity, the majority were of the younger 16-to-34 demographic and more affluent. The main motivation behind wanting to holiday outside of the UK was recorded as a desire for a change of scenery following a challenging and restrictive 14 months.
Gurd added: “Of course, these trends could all change based on a single government announcement, and the uncertainty means it is difficult for airlines, airports and international holiday companies to plan for. There is, however, solid ground to expect a profitable summer for domestic tourism providers.”