COVID-19: U.K. Shoppers Try to Stave Off Boredom in First Week of Restricted Living

COVID-19: U.K. Shoppers Try to Stave Off Boredom in First Week of Restricted Living

On Monday, 23 March, in an unprecedented broadcast to the nation, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that all U.K. residents must stay at home to protect the NHS (National Health Service) amid the growing threat of COVID-19. And with that, the U.K. officially entered its first week of restricted living.

U.K. residents now face strict restrictions, with shopping for basics, taking one form of exercise a day, receiving medical treatment or traveling to work if absolutely necessary becoming the only permissible reasons to leave home. All remaining social events were cancelled including weddings and funerals, places of worship and libraries were closed, and public gatherings of more than two people were banned—with police given the powers to enforce it.

While overall consumer goods sales were down during this first week of the restricted living phase, some products were standout winners. And these sales spikes paint a picture of just how U.K. shoppers were feeling as boredom or the fear of being bored in the coming weeks or potentially months loomed large.

Alongside the products you would expect shoppers to purchase during a global pandemic—such as shelf-stable food, medicines and cleaning products—sales of games and computer software increased by a massive 193.5%, with audiovisual sales jumping by 46%. Unsurprisingly, U.K. shoppers are desperate for some entertainment during the lockdown, especially amidst speculation it could last for months.

Categories in Highest Growth - Week Ending 28 March

In this period of restricted living, the supermarket shops themselves have changed. Ranges have been reduced to maximise availability and sell only essential products; one in, one out policies were implemented which limited access to the store; some stores closures were made in areas with less footfall; and retailers have continued to struggle with out of stocks as the supply chain has had to play catchup after the previous weeks’ peak demand.

Paul Walker, Managing Director, U.K. and Ireland, Nielsen, says: “While some retailers have been criticized for selling what some deem as non-essential items amidst the crisis, the spike in sales of entertainment products shows that what one person deems to be non-essentials may just be what gets another through this uncertain time.”

While the recent spike in sales of entertainment products will undoubtedly level off, it does point to an opportunity for retailers to help their shoppers maintain as much normality in their lifestyle as possible. With Easter coming up this weekend, retailers can help their shoppers connect with family and loved ones over virtual get-togethers with tech and games while also providing some inspiration for new and different meals the whole family can enjoy using the ingredients from the now well-stocked cupboard staples.

Shoppers did still continue to buy more in ambient, household and pet, and frozen food. But overall they spent around a third less than the week before, with weekly sales at the major supermarkets falling back from the £3.3 billion peak from the week ending 21 March to £2.2 billion in the week ending 28 March.

Walker says: “U.K. shoppers were already well prepared for restricted living, having made a massive 79 million shopping trips during the previous four weeks to build up their pandemic pantries and stock their freezers. With the peak in stockpiling happening the week before lockdown, FMCG sales declined as people began to make use of their stockpiled supplies.”

Sales at the total store level declined -12% in the week ending 28 March, following weeks of stockpiling.

Walker continued: “Shoppers had been preparing for this restricted living phase. We knew what was coming. So, this week may prove to be an anomaly, and we may see growth levels bounce back a little by mid-April as shoppers top up their supplies particularly with perishable items.”

Total Store Sales - Weekly Growth


The peak in stockpiling has passed, and the U.K. is now firmly entrenched in the restricted living phase. With many shoppers unwilling or unable to go out, we anticipate that over the coming few weeks an element of future grocery spend will go to other more local channels such as farm shops, local food and alcohol retailers, and the high street value retailers, as shoppers remain limited in their movements, with some looking to save money during this difficult time.

Online shopping continues to be under pressure with limited delivery capacities and the need to prioritise orders for vulnerable customers or emergency workers. During the peak stockpiling week, online attracted more than 600 thousand new shoppers. And given the ongoing limited capacities, it may be that regular online shoppers who can no longer get their standard weekly delivery slots will now look to other, more local bricks-and-mortar retailers to meet their immediate needs.

Walker concluded: “Looking ahead to the next four weeks, we anticipate that we’ll see two changes to U.K. shopping behaviour that are coming through in other areas of Western Europe. Firstly, the shift towards frozen will be followed by more purchases of fresh foods as households reduce purchasing of ambient goods and orientate towards more limited baskets of immediate, daily essentials. And secondly, shoppers will make fewer visits and less spend at large, out-of-town stores as more shopping is made locally and in smaller store formats.”

For more insights from around the world, visit our Nielsen COVID-19 Intelligence Hub.