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The new normal: retail during and post COVID-19

As the sense of uncertainty generated by COVID-19 persists, here at intu we’ve undertaken some in-depth research with the help of psychologist Donna Dawson, to understand how consumers are feeling and what their expectations are for the weeks and months ahead.

As part of our research, we spoke to over 2,000 regular shopping centre visitors, gathering views on how they think the pandemic will impact the way they shop and spend their time, in both the short and long term.

We looked at a range of topics – including what safety measures they would like to see in place as we return to shops, the retail channels they intend to use in the coming months, and the activities most looked forward to as restrictions lift.

Here, we take a look at the findings in-depth. As you will see, whilst there is undoubtedly a bumpy road ahead, the research points to an eagerness amongst consumers and, crucially, a willingness to return to pre-lockdown habits, as soon as is feasible. Questions around practicalities remain, but the sentiment should be ultimately reassuring for retail and leisure brands as we look to the future.

Consumers keen to revert to pre-lockdown shopping and spending habits

According to psychologist Donna Dawson, people will be keen to return to habitual behaviours – including shopping – as soon as possible, to restore a sense of normality.

People are creatures of habit, Donna says, and will naturally want to revert to old ways. There will be an initial mental hurdle to get over but once this has been navigated, people will likely very quickly want to re-establish past habits. They will look to superimpose any necessary safety measures on top of pre-existing behaviours, as far as possible.


Would visit shopping centres the same or more often than before

The desire to return to shopping specifically will also be partly driven by a hunger for sensory stimulation, explains Dawson. Sights, sounds, smells and the overall experience is what people are missing, and will be keen to return to. These things trigger an emotional response on a subliminal level, and can engage and make people feel happier.

Indeed, the survey results suggest that the majority of people are eager to revert to the shopping and spending patterns they followed pre-lockdown, as the threat of coronavirus lifts.

The appetite for physical retail remains strong. 81% said that they would visit shopping centres with the same or more frequency than they did pre-Coronavirus, as lockdown ends. Just 18% said that they would do most of their shopping online.

In terms of spending habits, 63% said that they intended to spend either the same or more as they did before coronavirus, post-lockdown. Within this, 45% said that they anticipated no change at all in their spending habits, whilst 18% said they would spend more, having not been able to for some time. 28% said they would spend less. 


Will spend as much as or more than before

The fact that there is an eagerness to revert to old ways is encouraging. There is, of course, still considerable uncertainty around how the threat of the virus will progress, and regarding the UK’s longer term economic recovery. Debate around how quickly the country will bounce back, and the impact of ‘pent up demand’, continue to play out. People’s level of caution and their spending habits will naturally fluctuate in line with wider developments and mood. The desire to revert to past behaviours shown in our research is, however, cause for some optimism – a good starting point.

Shoppers are looking for reassurance, and visible safety measures

Whilst people are keen to return to shops as the threat of coronavirus lifts, the research indicates a clear desire for reassurance and fairly stringent safety measures whilst we continue to navigate the crisis.

With vague and often contradictory messaging around the virus to date, consumers are looking for clear instruction and boundaries, says Dawson. They want to know where they stand and what will happen to those who do not adhere to rules. She advises a uniform approach across retail as far as is possible, to avoid confusion, and a clear set of up to five or six rules for people to follow, so as not to overwhelm.

Consumers want clear visual reassurance as they venture out, she says – safety measures that they can actually see, and staff who are comfortable and confident. Retailers need to respond to fears of the unknown, which are often greater than the virus itself.

Indeed, the survey found a clear expectation and support for shopping centres and retailers to put in place cautionary and safety measures, as the threat of Covid-19 remains.

Over 70% of regular shopping centre visitors said that they would actively encourage compulsory hand sanitisation upon store/centre entry, protective screens at tills, limitations on the numbers able to enter stores at any one time, and 2m distance markers in-store.

Over 60%, meanwhile, would actively encourage a temperature scan upon store/centre entry, in-store security and CCTV/tech to control crowds, cashless stores, and would be happy with an average wait time of 10 mins for store entry, to allow for safety.

Activities post-lockdown

The research shows that people are looking forward to returning to types of pre-lockdown activities to varying degrees. Socialising is key, but people are seeking spaces where contact can be carefully managed. Again, this is driven by the fear of the unknown and uncertainty over how others around them will act.

In terms of what people are most looking forward to as lockdown lifts, eating out ranked highest (47%), followed by social activities with family and friends (42% and 41%, respectively), followed by a visit to a shopping centre (35%). People were less eager to go to the theatre, visit museums and galleries, visit historic landmarks, go to concerts, visit the gym or go swimming (all of which scored less than 27%).

The key issue is that people want a sense of space. They want to be able to maintain their distance from others when desired. People also need to know that they can make a swift exit if they need to.

Donna Dawson

Claustrophobia is likely to increase given the amount of time that movement has been restricted. Leisure providers should think about increased exits, and exit signage, to provide reassurance, alongside other space management measures.

The good news is that people want to get out again – they just want to do it safely.

Community spirit and localism – a pandemic trend or here to stay?

Community spirit and localism has been heightened by the pandemic, says Dawson. This is because many have come to rely on local stores and independent retailers during lockdown, and feel a sense of loyalty as a result. In addition, people are feeling more emotional than normal. They are seeking to preserve the new connections they have made under times of stress.

The survey results reflected this, with support for local, independent brands and charities strong.

Around 70% viewed increased support and space for local and independent retailers as necessary as we return to normality, and around 70% felt the same about provision of infrastructure for charities in retail areas – such as donation drop-off points.

This does of course depend on your situation, she adds. If an individual already possessed a strong sense of ‘belonging’ to a local community pre-pandemic, this will likely be intensified or enhanced by the crisis. It will depend on where you live, and your social connections.

Final thoughts

The research gives good insight into consumers’ expectations as we look to transition to ‘a new normal’.

The over-arching message is clear: people want to get back to normal - which is promising - but they need clear reassurance from retailers and leisure providers along the way.

We need to ensure consumers feel safe and supported as restrictions lift. An open dialogue - allowing us to listen to what people want and need as the situation progresses - will be key.

If we work together closely as a sector, we feel confident we can navigate the challenges the pandemic presents.