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How has COVID-19 changed the face of FMCG?

Mellissa Flowerdew-Clarke
Mellissa Flowerdew-Clarke
VP of Marketing, EMEA
7 min read
21 October 2020

When COVID-19 hit, the nation went into panic mode. Consumers rushed to supermarkets, panic buying staple items en masse; hoarding wiped the shelves clear. Businesses rushed to cope with supply and demand while still keeping customers and employees safe. And specialists rushed to predict our untold economic future. Now that the dust has settled, introducing a far more digitised way of life, where do FMCG retailers stand and what trends hold true to projections made during the peak of the pandemic?

Across the board, high street retail suffered substantial losses, with shops like DW Sports, Laura Ashley and Debenhams going into administration. In the U.K., Retail Sales reported the monthly retail sales volume in March dropped 5.1%. 

According to ONS, total retail sales volumes have decreased by 4.8% up to August 2020, as all sectors except for food and non-store retailing saw a fall in sales. From March 2020, consumers shifted to spending in essential food stores and online retailers, as many stores within non-food retailing faced temporary closures. Total non-food stores fell by 18.2%, with a strong decline of 30.1% for clothing stores.

Though brick and mortar general stores were hit hard, grocery retailers saw a surge in sales to the tune of 43% growth the end week ending 21 March – the peak of panic buying. While shoppers did make 100 million fewer store visits, spend per trip increased by 50%. This surge has since evened out, with food retailing reporting a 4.4% growth from Jan – August. 

This may sound like good news for grocery store profit margins, but what is the cost of doing business during COVID? Morrison’s spent £155 million  on safety measures to protect employees and consumers. Tesco has reported an increase in food sales of 50% however, it estimates incurring costs ranging from £650-£925 million due to the coronavirus. Though these numbers sound devastating, the increase in sales is anticipated to offset these costs, resulting in grocery retailers still turning a profit.

A focus on life’s essentials

When faced with a crisis, access to the basics is pushed to the forefront of concern. In the early months of COVID, the nation seemed to have a shortage of the simplest of necessities like toilet paper and non-perishable food items. This deficit was fueled by panic buying, as people frantically prepared for the worst. The coronavirus has highlighted concerns about the fragile complexity of supply chains, in light of the unforeseen strain on the system. But, in actuality, if the masses had gone about their normal shops, shelves would have remained stocked. 

Anticipation of the worst case scenario by the general public meant supermarket visits were made less frequently, but with the volume of purchases much larger in quantity. Shops struggled to keep shelves stocked, and when people couldn’t find what they needed in-store, they turned to online shopping for these needs. 

At the height of the online grocery shopping surge, stores like Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Morrisons struggled to keep up with orders, leaving some with no choice but to implement virtual queues. In fact, according to an article published by the BBC, worldwide Google searches for “food delivery” and “local food” reached all-time highs in April. In the UK, people were six times more likely to search for “veg boxes” than a year ago. 

As normality, albeit a new one, begins to resume, new trends emerge pointing to what seems to be a permanent shift to online shopping for all items, especially food and drink. The face of retail has been dramatically altered, forcing FMCG businesses in the food and beverage industry to adapt at an alarming pace, and they have.

Survey says delivery for all

GlobalData’s analyst, Thomas Brereton, stated, “In the UK, online grocery retail is expected to grow 25.5% this year – well ahead of the 10.2% growth previously forecasted. On top of the initial increase in volume demand, a continued reluctance to venture to stores for the rest of the year will bolster online market growth over a longer period than in store.”

So far, the numbers support these statements. Tesco doubled their online delivery slots in the six weeks prior to May, according to reports made by the supermarket in The Guardian. In July, Ocado’s chief executive, Tim Steiner, commented in an interview with the BBC, “As a result of COVID-19, we have seen years of growth in the online grocery market condensed into a matter of months.” 
Waitrose conducted a survey of 2,000 people nationally, that showed 77% of people now do at least some of their grocery shopping online, compared to 61% a year ago. This survey also showed approximately 60% of people have shopped online for groceries more frequently since the pandemic, with convenience being listed as the reason for 41% of participants.

Additionally, it was revealed in this same survey that 32% of people aged 35-44  now shop online at least once each week, double the number in 2019.

Rise of independents

Though it may seem as if online shopping and large box stores are seeing the most growth due the current climate, this is not the case. Reports from The Grocer show that in the week ending 17 May, independents actually prevailed over the U.K. Big Four, with record growth of 63.1%, nearly double the growth of Ocado and ten times that of ASDA. It is believed that this is in part due to consumers wanting to support local businesses in times of uncertainty, the lack of available delivery slots, and wanting to avoid crowded aisles at picked-over grocery stores. However, as the months pass the main focus for FMCG still seems to be online shopping, and the implementation of D2C is gaining significant momentum.

D2C in record time

According to Internet Retailing, March – June resulted in over 85,000 businesses either launching online shops or joining marketplaces. Prior to the pandemic, 70% of growth for consumer products companies resulted from D2C. Now, with the staggering increase in online shopping, more and more brands are quickly adding D2C to their business model. 

Brakes, the U.K. food delivery service for nursing homes, schools and catering companies, is no exception. Contrary to their name, Brakes stomped on the gas and went D2C in 7 days to regain a foothold in the market, recovering from plummeting deliveries and revenue. Launching on 30 March, Brakes opened to the public, delivering food across nine regions in the U.K.

Larger transcontinental brands like Heinz, Pepsi and Nestle, have also opened D2C online shops to serve a label loyal customer base. A good choice, considering 49% of UK consumers during lockdown tried to only buy from their favourite brands. Additionally, GlobalData found 50% of consumers stated that familiarity, trust-worthiness, and how ‘risk-free a product feels’ has the greatest influence on their purchase choice.

Independent companies are also joining the world in D2C. For example, Cecily Mills crowdfunded Coconuts Organic, a small producer of plant-based ice cream in Cornwall, expanding her B2B business model with her own online store on Shopify. Mills commented in an interview with Business Leader, “by developing a reliable and cost-effective way to send ice cream by post, we have suddenly opened up a whole new side to the business.”

In light of the changes to the landscape of the food and beverage industry, businesses continue to push the envelope when it comes to online visibility and delivery of products. It’s becoming apparent that online grocery shopping is, indeed, the new normal. 

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VP of Marketing, EMEA

Mellissa Flowerdew-Clarke