As the UK marks its 60th day in lockdown, we are all too familiar with our current normal, but for weeks—or months (is anyone sure on the passage of time anymore?)—the hot topic has been predicting what comes next. Insight Research, like many retailers and suppliers, turned to technology. We created a new webinar series, Shop Talk LIVE, to discuss that unclear future with retailers and industry experts.
While opportunities are presenting themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic, our experts agreed that when we emerge from the other side of the crisis life won’t return to normal. Consultant Scott Annan suggested there was fundamental change at play, while Joe Barrett, COO of Applegreen, said retailers may win back between 60-80% of business by December 2020. Debbie Robinson, chief executive at the Central England Co-operative, said her business was not even using the word “back.” “It’s banned because we only have the future,” she said.
Health and safety and food hygiene in convenience stores has soared to the top of the agenda. Consultant Dev Dhillon hit the nail on the head when he said, “Consumers have completely reset how they assess health and safety in food environments now.” Patrick Sewell, managing director at Sewell on the Go, said he had never sold so many carrier bags: “They’ve been in decline but have rocketed in popularity and usage.” Similarly, for items like fresh produce and morning goods, which are unwrapped, “there are expectations from consumers not to have it like that,” he said.
Green issues will take a back seat, and retailers will need to invest in the health and safety of their food environments, with plastics likely reintroduced to shore up consumer confidence, the panels believed. For Robinson, while there is talk that the earth is healing during the pandemic, the damage to the economy will also be huge. However, conservation and responsibility has risen up the agenda and individuals are questioning their own behaviour and taking self-responsibility, while people are taking control in communities, she added. “We cannot let that agenda slip, but safety has to come first. It’s a big dichotomy,” she said.
“Independent convenience stores have attracted a whole different world of loyalty and love off the back of their response to COVID,” stated Dhillon. Robinson agreed, “Most of our colleagues have continued to work on the front line. Society is in awe and their status will soar as a consequence. They are brave people going to work each day not knowing what they are going to face.” Convenience retail is also poised to benefit from the trend to shop locally and from providing store cupboard essentials. It’s the flip side to food to go, as Barrett acknowledges. “About four years there was the trend to get rid of grocery and put in food to go but that’s been the most impacted part of the business, and grocery is holding everything together,” he said.
So, that’s the flavour of the issues most prevalent in our discussions with UK retailers. Day to day, the UK public continue to take their government-approved exercise, nod to passersby and discuss the weather—some things will never change. And while adapting to virtual communication has felt progressive and is proving successful, I, for one, cannot wait to see many of you in person.