Towards the end of January 2021, the Office for National Statistics published a report on the social impact of Covid-19 in Great Britain. It found that 25% of adults felt it will be more than a year before life returns to normal, while 22% think it’ll be six months or less. However long it takes, sooner or later the shops will reopen, holidays will be back on the agenda and maybe we’ll even be able return to large-scale events and festivals. But we’ll go back as different post-Covid consumers in a changed world. How have our priorities, behaviours and buying habits shifted in three key areas of our lives: retail, travel and work?

The great online shopping shift

Rolling lockdowns have meant disaster for UK high streets and consumers have, by necessity, had to switch most of their purchasing online for months at a time. When physical stores re-open they’re sure to find pent-up demand with many shoppers will return in droves to the likes of Primark, but the increase in online sales is likely to stick, especially given the almost undoubtedly permanent shift towards more home working. 

Lockdown has also driven big changes in what people are buying and how often. Shopping baskets got bigger as we made efforts to bulk-buy, either for convenience or just to reduce the impact of delivery charges. Gym equipment, gaming consoles, DIY, hobby and cookery supplies have been on everyone’s minds as they tried to alleviate boredom. Fashion retailers are responding to changing needs by changing their offerings, creating smaller collections, making loungewear the hero, and of course sometimes trying to convince us to dress up at home, both for work and for the inevitable kitchen disco. 

Experimentation has also been a big part of lockdown for both consumers and businesses. Consumers needed to find online sources for things usually bought in person and have also searched for new things to do inside their four walls. Businesses have developed new products and services to suit changing needs. None of us could have anticipated ordering meal-at-home kits from top restaurants or high-end groceries that would be biked over from neighbourhood cafés. 

In terms of customer experience, when you’re stuck at home with few distractions you soon notice which digital retailers are the most efficient and easy to use, have the best product information and are the most consistent with supply and delivery. 4 out of 5 global consumers have said they’ll stick with new brands discovered in lockdown according to BazaarVoice; meanwhile GlobalWebIndex found that ‘what they did during Covid’ will be a driver for 40% of future consumer choices. Retailers who’ve adapted quickly to surges in demand and new challenges may find in return that customers post-Covid reward them with that most rare of commodities – loyalty. Nevertheless, no online provider can afford to be complacent because when things do get back to whatever the new normal is, competition for consumers’ attention will increase. Businesses who continue to listen to their customers and build services around their needs will be the ones that are still thriving in five- or ten-years’ time. 

Traditional office workers see a more flexible, home-based future

For those whose jobs make it possible, working at home for at least part of the week is here to stay. Old-fashioned attitudes in favour of the office-based nine-to-five have gone out of the window now that it’s been proved that people can successfully work remotely. Perhaps presenteeism – clocking up the hours while under the weather or unengaged might become a thing of the past, replaced by demonstrations of productivity that are less to do with hours worked than focus on the task in hand. Of course, what companies have also realised is that more home working allows the business to make savings by downsizing office space or seeking more local and flexible options. 

With fewer office workers streaming out for their lunchbreak, what’ll happen to all those businesses clustered around city centre offices – the artisan coffee shops and street food stalls, the boutiques, gift and card shops? Do we miss them? Will we start to see them re-opening in residential neighbourhoods instead? It’s a bit too early to tell at the moment, but while holed up at home many of us must have wished to be able to pop out at lunchtime to somewhere a bit more satisfying than the corner shop. There might be opportunities there, but meanwhile the big high street retailers who were already in trouble, for instance Peacocks, the Arcadia group and Debenhams, have seen the quickening of their demise. City centre gyms may also suffer long-term effects from repeated lockdowns and a shift to home working. Many people can’t wait to get back to them, but may choose to move to a gym close to home rather than close to the office, or switch to remote fitness classes and exercising in the local park for good. 

Less movement, longer trips abroad and the rise and the rise of the staycation

Travel has always been about escapism but now the focus is on risk in all its aspects – financial, health, logistical. In the last few decades consumers became used to grabbing a flight and hopping off to Barcelona, Rome or Berlin for the weekend, especially as it often worked out cheaper than taking a break in the UK. But as long as Covid is around, even at levels lower than they are today, it’s going to feel riskier and involve more red tape and expense. It seems likely that people will decide to take longer holidays when they go overseas, staying for more time in one place to save on hassle and provide more peace of mind. If there are future waves of Covid, maybe our casual attitude to travel will have gone for ever, replaced by a new focus on special occasion holidays, perhaps with larger groups of the friends and family we’ve all missed so much over the last year.  

There could also mean a renewed focus on package holidays. Some airlines refused to issue refunds to customers who were unable to travel, with others losing the cost of their Airbnb bookings, sometimes running into thousands. People are going to be looking for flexibility and reassurance, translating in experience design terms into clear, upfront information on safety measures and company policies and easier journeys for amending and cancelling bookings. 

Necessarily there’s been a huge rise in people taking holidays within the UK, and although many of us can’t wait to return to the city and beach breaks we’re used to, it seems likely that this renewed interest in holidaying around our own coastline and countryside will stay with us for a couple of years at least. It may be inconvenient but if there’s a sudden need to get home because of changing infection rates it’s a lot easier to drive back from Devon than join hundreds of others trying to catch the last flight out of Portugal.

The necessities of life during a pandemic has accelerated the trend towards digital retail and services and broken down barriers for some consumers who may have been nervous about online security. It’s also meant a shift towards remote and flexible working for those who can, a change that could have a significant effect on our everyday lives, our cities and neighbourhoods and transport systems. 

In terms of travel many of us can’t wait for the time when we have the freedom to go wherever we want, whenever we want again, but as long as Covid is around consumers will have to approach it in a different way. As has been the case throughout the pandemic it’s likely that younger consumers will be more likely to quickly return to holidaying abroad, wanting to make up for lost time and knowing that they have a much lower risk of serious consequences than older generations. Let’s hope that this time next year we’ll all be in a different, better place.