03 February 2021, 08:18 AM
  • How has Covid-19 changed where we shop? Kevin Flynn, director of retail strategy at ThoughtWorks explains why local shops and tech solutions will be the future of food retail
Why shoppers are looking beyond supermarkets

Over the last 12-months, food manufacturers and retailers have become the unsung heroes of the Covid-19 pandemic. Maintaining food supply at a time of national emergency has been an impressive success story and those images of empty supermarket shelves last March proved to be short-lived

During the periods of lockdown, more people purchased food online and many explored new sources and outlets for food. The Covid era accelerated technology’s role in framing our food buying considerations.

As we start 2021, more people are asking questions about their food, where it comes from and whether the food they buy is ethical. Two years on from our original survey in 2018, ThoughtWorks asked Britons which factors they thought would become more important in shaping their food-buying decisions by the year 2030. Whilst price returned as the number one driver, there was also a big focus on efficiency – with more people caring about tackling food waste and the energy used in production. This focus on efficiency and energy use also played out with more people wanting to buy locally produced food, rising sharply from 27% to 39% since 2018.

Thinking more independently

Shoppers are becoming more demanding of the organisations that make, package or sell food. Following a difficult 2020, our research suggested that more people are looking to support businesses in their local community – including greater support for small business retailers, local producers and farmers. With more people considering buying food directly from food producers or online via non-supermarket brands, the declining popularity of the traditional supermarket has been noteworthy among younger people who were less inclined to believe that the future of food shopping involved pushing a trolley around a store. To some extent, the younger members of society are right. One of the great things about the current climate is that there is an extraordinary variety of choice, you don’t just have to go to the supermarket or even leave the comfort of your home.

Consumers are thinking a lot more broadly about where their food comes from. An advantage that local retailers have is knowing what their customers want, anticipating their needs and, for some, the ability to be agile in adapting quickly to change.

Food technology

As Covid has made abundantly clear, producers have had to modernise and offer services and products online because that’s the way people shop today. The ability to click and collect or have food delivered straight to your front door has been a saving grace for many people that have been unable to leave their homes in recent months. The rise in food delivery brands has gathered pace in the past few years and they have now moved into the grocery space. Options have broadened, offering delivery services across hot fresh meals, fast food as well as ingredients. There is also an increasing popularity of subscription services, which can offer consumers the enjoyment of a prepared meal and recipe ideas accompanied by ingredients.

Having a strong online presence will be a keystone to the future of food retail.  Online shopping has opened many avenues for both the consumer and the retailer. The online experience has allowed people to research, to ask questions about the origins and ethics of food, discover new options, and to purchase products that more closely reflect the issues they care about. Now online platforms are also enabling the producer to go directly to the customers, who are now more than ever shopping online and buying directly from places such as fisheries and farms.

There is no question that the supermarkets, independent retailers and producers have all done a heroic job to maintain food supply during the pandemic. Food has always been an important part of the UK’s culture, but in a matter of months it has been well and truly pushed to the forefront of the consumer’s psyche. Food has become more than just sustenance and nutrition – it is about enjoyment. Now more than ever, people are looking to get the best ingredients and produce possible – Brexit to an extent has also caused this. Suppliers are able to better manage the increasing demand and supply certain products because of technology. No matter the size of the shop, not every product can be found and this is where we have seen digital success in food retail. The challenge now is whether retailers and producers can keep on top of the increasingly high expectations of the consumer.

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