Shopping patterns show flicker of change as commuters return

The latest take-home grocery figures from Kantar show sales fell year on year by 1.9% during the 12 weeks to 5 September 2021.  Sales remain 8.7% higher than pre-COVID levels, reflecting that the impact of the pandemic is still being felt on the market.  But with people set to return en masse to offices and schools in September, shopping habits are expected to change.
 
“There are big lifestyle changes on the horizon with commuters heading back to the office and the return to school this autumn, and we’d expect this to impact how people shop,” said Fraser McKevitt, head of retail and consumer insight at Kantar. “In the first week of September we measured the highest supermarket footfall all year outside of the Easter period with more people out and about picking up items as they go. That suggests a hint of change, and could see shoppers shun the ‘big shop’ in favour of more frequent top up buying. But we shouldn’t expect to shift from habits learned in lockdown straight back to pre-COVID patterns overnight. It’s most likely that the needle will settle somewhere in between. 
 
“We are already tracking signs of fatigue when it comes to home cooking. Sales of chilled ready meals, for example, increased by 11% this month as consumers’ lives get busier again. More people returning to towns and cities should also provide a boost for cafés and coffee shops, where spending last September was £187 million lower than in 2019. We anticipate that a good amount of that lost cash should return to the high street this year but that means it will move away from the grocery sector.” 
 
The trend away from large shops is already happening on digital platforms, with the average online shop now worth £78.28, nearly £17 less than its peak at the start of the pandemic. The market share of online grocery has fallen to 12.2% this month from 13% four weeks ago – the lowest level since May 2020 as people continue to move their spend back in-store. 
 
Like-for-like grocery prices rose by 1.3% in the past four weeks compared to last year. “For much of 2021 shoppers have been shielded from price increases, with more being sold on promotion this year compared to 2020,” said McKevitt. “But in the past month only 27.5% of spending was done on deals.  Other than the early days of lockdown last year, that is the lowest level recorded in the fifteen years which we have tracked this data, with retailers aiming to offer everyday low prices instead.”
 
At a time when total market sales are contracting, Waitrose bucked the trend and found growth both online and in-store. With spend up by 2.2% in the past 12 weeks, it was the fastest growing supermarket for the second month in a row.  As a result, Waitrose’s market share increased to 5.1%, a fifth consecutive increase which makes this its best run since September 2015.  Tesco was the only other grocer to increase sales value year on year, up 0.2% on 2020.  Performing better than the overall market meant Tesco also won share, gaining 0.5 percentage points to account for 27.3% of all sales.

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