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After a long two months in lockdown, the government revealed its pandemic exit strategy in February. The roadmap is a cautious plan for ending lockdown restrictions, and eventually all legal limits on social contact, by as soon as 21st June. While it isn’t set in stone – Covid-19 has certainly upended the government’s plans before – it is a positive sign that the country’s leaders can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The successful rollout of vaccines in the UK has also gone a long way towards instilling a sense of confidence in the public. IGD’s Shopper Confidence Index revealed that in February, confidence rose to its highest level in more than a year, driven by the planned easing of lockdown restrictions and the vaccination programme.
“It’s really reassuring to see another slight increase in confidence, following the January score; it brings a sense of optimism,” said Simon Wainwright, director of global insight at IGD. He expects confidence to continue rising after further financial support was announced in the chancellor’s Spring Budget.
For Tom Newey, CEO of Cobbs Farm Co farm shops, seeing a potential end in sight to lockdown restrictions brings about “a huge amount of mixed feeling and emotion”. First, there is the logistical and mental challenge of helping staff through the transition. “Like many, balancing the needs of staff who’ve worked in our shops throughout the pandemic and those less fortunate hospitality staff who have regrettably been furloughed and are soon to return is challenging, and we’re putting lots of measures in place to support them all,” he said.
With warmer temperatures and relaxed restrictions on their way, Tom expects to see confidence continuing to rise among customers – but that doesn’t mean Covid is over for retailers. “We’re confident in a strong demand for outdoor space come April but think customers will still have every expectation of being reassured through Covid-secure messaging and procedures.”
However, thanks to the lockdown easing plans, Cobbs Farm Co has begun making plans for bigger outdoor events throughout the summer with “some confidence”, and Tom is hopeful about what’s on the horizon. “Predicting the future after the year we’ve just had is a brave move, but I can’t help but feel positive about the sector and it’s exciting growth opportunities. Lots of us saw plenty of new faces shopping with us during the pandemic, whether that be online or in-store and we’re working very hard to ensure we retain them!”
Spending on home-cooked meals rocketed during lockdown. With restaurants and cafés largely closed, consumers have eaten an extra seven billion meals at home since spring 2020, according to Kantar.
Overall, shoppers have spent £15.2 billion more on groceries during the pandemic, or around £4,800 per household, on average. And at the start of Lockdown 3.0, spending on groceries was still on the rise, and growing at its fastest rate since June 2020. These huge rates of growth are likely to slow down as hospitality returns over the coming months. As consumers spend more on meals out and less on home dining, Kantar expects to see the typical sales patterns of 2019 return to the fore. While this means sales will taper off from their pandemic highs for retailers, it’s good news for producers that service the hospitality sector and retailers with on-site restaurants or cafés.
Rosie Collins, marketing manager at Macknade said the retailer is looking forward to opening up the dining spaces at its Faversham and Ashford food halls, and making the most of a new food village in Faversham and an expansion in Ashford. “We are looking forward to our community experiencing this new space,” Rosie said.
There’s a palpable excitement from foodservice brands, too. Ashley Chipchase, the owner of street food brand Mexican Seoul, said he’s witnessed an “explosion of activity” from event organisers. “There finally seems to be some light at the end of this long, dark, winding tunnel, and the whole industry seems to be readying itself to get back to normality,” Ashley said.
“The last year has taught us that anything can happen, and there’s a good chance that the goalposts will move,” Ashley added. “However, we are optimistic that we will have the opportunity to do what we love and share our food with the public.”