Social distancing, mask wearing and hand sanitising were some of the new trends the Covid-19 pandemic brought about in our day-to-day lives. With vaccinations taking place apace, there are hopes we will be back to normal soon. However, it’s impossible to return to that pre-pandemic normal in its entirety. Some habits from before will stick around. For retailers, the hope will be that the changes that stick are the ones that help their business, while they must continue to provide the welcome and offer that made their stores so popular during the pandemic. “I don’t think much is going to change back,” says Sophie Towers, from Spar Hillingdon in Burnley, Lancashire. “I think a lot of people have got used to how things are and they don’t want to change back yet.

It’s just become a habit for a lot of people now.” In terms of shopping habits, it is unlikely that even when social restrictions are lifted, people will return to the same levels of confidence when out in public. Retailers should expect some customers to continue wearing masks and enforcing their own social distancing for some time. Accommodating this will ensure that your stores continue to be viewed as safe places to shop. Local connections played a huge role during the pandemic and the bonds forged in that time should be strengthened in the months ahead. The convenience store’s place at the heart of the community was showcased in 2020. Retailers should not allow that shine to fade.

“It’s picking those people up who want to talk to a person so they develop a relationship. We’ve got a few regulars and we know what they want and how they want it,” says Bart Dalla-Mura from Tysoe Village Stores in Warwick. We’ve also increased our local supplier base and that will stay that way so I won’t be re-turning all my product categories to a main wholesaler.”

Keeping your range wide

The pandemic saw people increasingly rely on their local stores, which in turn forced retailers to step up their offer to provide products they hadn’t previously stocked. However, the past 12 months have driven up customer expectations. Jeet Bansi, from Meon Vale Londis in Stratford-upon-Avon, continues to stock new brands to keep customers and encourage them to purchase more.

“We keep our ears open and if we can fit something into our strategy then we will, because those customers will come in for that product and then buy some more. We hear it 10 times a day: ‘I didn’t come in for this, but I’ve just got to buy it now’.”

Having a larger store allows him to accommodate these extra lines and increased basket spend “We used to be at £8.73 average basket spend, now we’re in the mid £10s and the aspiration is to get it to £11 or £12.”

Importance of reciprocity

For Bart Dalla-Mura from Tysoe Village Stores in Warwick, the pandemic has been a lesson in reciprocity from suppliers and customers. He’s not reintroducing a lot of additional services including dry-cleaning because the people who used them didn’t then shop for groceries at the store once lockdown hit.

“They’re lost customers, but it’s not worth the effort for the margin because our business is selling groceries. That’s what we need to focus on, and if we’re trying to manage all the rest, we’re not managing our core business.”

Dalla-Mura will also be permanently maintaining a local supplier base across meat, dairy and fresh foods, as they gave invaluable assistance when he was “badly let down” by the bigger players in the initial lockdown, and beefing up home delivery with a bespoke website.

Buying more is here to stay

During the pandemic, Sophie Towers, from Spar Hillingdon in Burnley, Lancashire, noticed her customers were buying a lot more per visit. This not only took the form of bulk buying and multipacks, but the range of options that they looked for. “Things that they would have bought in the supermarket, they came to us for,” she says. “Larger packets of washing powder, multipack rinks and chocolate.”

Older customers found out her stores stocked many of the products they would previously have gone elsewhere to purchase, increasing their basket spend.

“Older people that used to have their habits of going to the butcher for this, that’s changed. They say: ‘We didn’t even know you had bread rolls and fresh meat’,” she says. Now her customers are
aware of this, Towers is confident she can retain her new customers even as restrictions lift.

Big night in will put for the future

While people will visit the on-trade once it opens, Sasi Patel, who runs three Go Local stores in Manchester, believes the Covid-19 trend of having special occasions at home will continue, with premium and sharing products set to benefit.

“People are playing a lot more in the premium sector,” he says. “A family that used to go out for dinner now knows they are spending a lot more than they would if they did it in their own home.

“I’ve introduced readymade cocktails ranging from £6 to £20 and they sell really well. These are things you would pay a premium for when you go out, so people are doing it at home.

“The guy who would only buy Smirnoff before is now buying Cîroc because there’s more money to spend on entertainment at home compared with on the high street. People have been getting together for barbecues and we’ve seen a massive uplift in sharing packs.”

This piece appeared in the 16 April 2021 issue of Retail News. To get the latest issue, subscribe here