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How the shift online has changed the way shoppers buy goods from clothing to household appliances: ONS

Image: LovelyDay12/Shutterstock

Image: LovelyDay12/Shutterstock

It’s long been noted that the pandemic has changed shopping habits, with more retail spending now taking place online than beforehand. New Office for National Statistics (ONS) analysis looks at how online shopping has changed and finds the shift online is more marked in categories from clothing to household appliances – and that in many categories where spending is further online than before the pandemic, the quantity of goods bought is also higher than in 2019. Conversely in some categories, where the proportion spent online is lower than in 2019, the amount bought is also lower.

The ONS report, How our spending has changed since the end of coronavirus (Covid-19) restrictions, suggests that the pandemic accelerated the growth of online shopping. While ecommerce spending online spending has now fallen back below lockdown peaks, it remains well ahead of pre-pandemic patterns. Just over a quarter (26.6%) of official retail sales were online in May 2022, compared with 19.7% in February 2020. Shoppers have returned in-store in recent months, but online spending remains high. The study draws on data from Revolut transactions, which are currently 38% online and 62% in-store – although the report points out that its debit card users are more likely to be younger and more metropolitan.

How online shopping has changed

Online shopping habits have changed as a result of the pandemic, finds the report, with products from pet foods to gardening products such as seeds and fertilisers now more likely to be bought online than in 2019. These are areas where new spending habits – such as taking up new hobbies – seem likely to persist. Some 24.3% of spending on flowers, plants, seeds, fertilisers and pet foods took place online in May 2022 – a proportion that has continued to rise even after the end of pandemic restrictions. Categories where shopping has shifted online most markedly also include sports equipment, games and toys – where the proportion of spending taking place online has risen to 24.9% – well ahead of pre-pandemic levels. In these categories, the shift online appears to have helped to boost the quantities of goods bought, compared to 2019 levels. In May 2022, shoppers bought 113.5% of the sports equipment, games and toys that they bought in 2019, and 112.5% of the flowers, plans, seeds, fertilisers and pet foods.

However the proportion of books, newspapers and stationery being bought online is returning to 2019 levels, with an estimated 7.9% of sales online in May 2022. And at the same time, the quantities bought were at 85.9% of 2019 levels

Spending has also shifted further online in household goods categories where about 22% of sales have taken place online over the last six months. These include furniture, lighting and household goods (22.8% in May 2022), hardware, paints and glass (14.8%) and electrical household appliances (37.7%). Increased online spending has helped to raise the total quantity spent for hardware, paints and glass (104% of the 2019 index) and electrical household appliances (103.8%), but spending on furniture, lighting and household goods remains below 2019 levels – at 96% of the index – despite higher online spending.

Food spending, meanwhile, is further online in both supermarkets (9.5%) and specialist food shops (6.2%) and in the clothing category (26.3%). However, the quantity bought is below 2019 levels at supermarkets (97.1% of 2019 index) and only slightly above at specialist food shops (103%) and clothing retailers (101.1%). 

Changes in spending

This pattern, says the ONS, may be a result of changing behaviour and the rising cost of living. It says in the report: It says that ‘delayable’ spending, such as clothes, footwear, and household purchases has dipped in the most recent months but it was already well below what it was in February 2020. Meanwhile ‘work-related’ spending such as fuel has risen sharply, compared with 2020, as measured through CHAPS data, and spending on staples has levelled out, while social spending has dipped from a peak this spring – and is now similar to February 2020 levels. 

The report says: “Retail spending, in pounds through checkouts, has largely recovered compared with pre-pandemic levels, but the cost of living is having an impact on transactions and how much we are buying in volumes.

“This means that, while overall the amount we are spending is now above what it was pre-pandemic, this is largely owing to rising prices rather than the number of purchases.”

It adds: “Rising prices have led to changes in behaviour. In this last week, 62% of adults said they had reduced spending on non-essentials as a result of the cost-of-living crisis, according to our Opinions and Lifestyle Survey.”

Other insights include the finding that older shoppers, aged 55 and over, spent less during the pandemic but are now spending more – perhaps following a period of staying at home and spending less during the pandemic that helped this group to build savings. 

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