Toby Clark
Toby Clark is Director of EMEA Research, and is responsible for many Mintel report series, tracking consumer sentiment and top-level spending intentions in the UK.

Learning to coexist with the virus

If there’s one thing that 2020 should have taught me, it’s that it was always going to be over-optimistic to think that I’d be able to shut down my laptop on the Friday before Christmas and enjoy my planned fortnight off work without too much drama. But the latest COVID-19 developments have put paid to that idea. Even ignoring the impact on my holiday plans, I definitely never expected to be worrying about whether I’d be able to track down the traditional satsuma for everyone’s stockings in the run-up to Christmas. 

But if there’s one positive to be taken from the current situation, it’s that Mintel’s COVID-19 Global Tracker data shows that British consumers have been remarkably resilient in the face of unprecedented turmoil. After the initial spike in concerns over the risks posed by the new virus, we’ve adapted to the new normal. Or, more accurately, a series of ‘next normals’.

In our latest wave of research, which closed on 16 December, 50% of UK consumers rated their level of concern about the risk of being exposed to COVID-19 as “4” or “5” out of 5. Although this level of concern reflects the very real risk posed by the disease, it is lower than in the early days of the pandemic, and it has stayed relatively steady despite the rising infection rates in November and December, and the subsequent lockdowns across the UK. 

After almost a year, there’s clearly a degree of acceptance and normalisation among consumers. 

But COVID-19 has intensified Brexit concerns

In the background, though, the strain is starting to show. As highlighted in our recent research on UK consumers and the economic outlook, the financial impact of the pandemic is starting to feed through into sentiment. Most people still say that their situation is either healthy or OK, but there’s a gradual increase in the proportion of people who say their finances have deteriorated over the last year. 

And even more striking is the increase in concern over the economic impact of Brexit. In November, 54% thought it’d be negative for the cost of living, 49% bad for employment, and 45% that it’d hit the UK’s economic growth. Concerns had softened slightly since the summer, but people are still much more pessimistic than they were before the pandemic hit

France’s (and other EU nations’) ban on travel from the UK on 20 December might have been prompted by COVID-19 rather than Brexit, but it will still raise concerns about what the new trading relationship with the EU will have on the UK’s economic and supply chains.

Christmas – a chance to escape the negativity…

Nick Carroll, Associate Director, Retail Research at Mintel, discussed the impact of November’s new wave of restrictions: “We were relatively optimistic about the prospects for Christmas trading. An indulgent Christmas period is one way of fighting back against the overriding grimness of the year, and in our pre-lockdown research, 77% of consumers had said that it’s important to have a good Christmas after the events of 2020.”

Our COVID-19 Global Tracker data points towards this determination to enjoy Christmas, come what may. The 16 December research shows that the proportion of people who say they were cutting back on non-essential spending had fallen to 33% – the lowest level we’ve seen since we started tracking this metric back in April. 

Brits are not throwing caution to the wind, but they’re clearly giving themselves a little more leeway over the festive season.

 …but 2020 isn’t done with us yet 

Clearly, whatever plans that had been made have now had to be re-assessed. (Although some of us, myself included, were already seeing this Christmas as an excuse to indulge our inner hermit.) But even if you can’t see your family, many will have been planning to tick off the other essential Christmas traditions – plenty to eat, plenty to drink, and a mild sense of nausea, guilt, and regret on Boxing Day. 

But while many people had already factored in the prospects of a smaller, socially-distanced Christmas, almost no one would have even considered the chances that COVID-19 could prompt a shutdown of freight. The pessimists might have been preparing for empty shelves if we failed to agree on a deal with the EU, but at least that was only due to kick in on 1 January – not three days before Christmas. 

The pandemic, at least, has meant that both retailers and consumers are much more resilient. Although our research shows that only 13% of consumers say they are noticing stock shortages, down from a high of 45% in April, 16% say they are still stocking up on groceries. This has fallen slightly from its peak of 20%, but it still shows the way in which COVID-19 has prompted people to change their shopping behaviour. Consumers don’t want to risk having empty cupboards again

In a strange way, the planning for a no-deal Brexit will also have supported this resilience: retailers were already working hard to minimise the impact of any disruption to supply chains, and some consumers will also have been factoring this possibility into their shopping behaviour. 

Regardless of all this preparation, though, any empty shelves will shake consumer confidence, particularly when combined with already elevated concerns over the possible impact of Brexit. And although Brexit planning will help retailers manage the impact on stock availability, using up those contingency supplies will have a knock-on effect if we do end up with further disruption on 1 January. 

At Mintel, we are working on our own Brexit contingency plans, including the Mintel Reports UK Analyst team who have been assessing the impact that a no-deal exit from the EU would have on their markets. Some markets will be relatively unaffected, while others will be hugely disrupted. Clients can expect to see that research and analysis come January.