The future of shopping

by James Llewellyn
Brands & Media

The rate of store closures in Britain doubled in 2020, with the department store Debenhams one of the latest casualties. With hand-sanitising, mask-wearing and signs asking you not to touch things, the message has been clear – if you must shop, be quick about it! And many shoppers have taken this message seriously.

In response to the lockdowns and restrictions on traditional retail, there has been a huge acceleration in e-commerce. People have bought not just the basics but embarked on long-dreamed-of (or put off) DIY projects, kitted out their home with new tech, and pursued fitness goals. According to Retail Week, the fastest-growing retailer in the UK in 2020 was Gymshark.1 COVID-19 has created a step-change in the adoption of e-commerce, but will increased interest in things such as fitness, home improvement and new technology be sustained? Time will tell.

The switch to online hasn’t been plain sailing, either. As people were forced online, they often found it hard work. In the UK, the proportion saying online shopping is harder than going to a physical store rose, with even more agreeing in France and Germany – the forced adoption of online shopping was not without its problems.2 At first glance, this could reflect people who are perhaps less likely to have shopped much online in the past, or are in a generation less likely to be as tech savvy. However, we found that Gen Z are no different in this regard, with 36% agreeing, up from 23% in 2019.

Woman opens package of fitness gear

Friction with ecommerce has grown – even among Gen Z

I find shopping online more difficult than shopping in traditional stores

% agree

Ipsos Global Trends

c. 150 Gen Z adults per wave in each country, June-July 2019 and September 2020

Brands will need to find new routes to consumers and should prepare for some of this stay-at-home behaviour to stick

Online does not cater for all our shopping needs. In a recent survey, 38% said that online is their preferred way to shop when they know what they want, whereas 26% thought that stores held the advantage here.3 However, online is a less enjoyable way to shop (just 22% rate online as more enjoyable, versus 46% for stores) and fails to deliver things you need right away – 22% consider online ideal if you are in a hurry, 61% turn to stores when in a rush. Given ongoing store closures, getting last-minute gifts for Christmas may be challenging. Worryingly for the high street, 17% of UK shoppers have told us they will do all of their Christmas shopping online this year, while 43% said they will spend less money on Christmas this year, either way.

So, what will shopping look like in 2021 and beyond? It’s likely that store closures will continue, but this is an acceleration of an existing trend. Brands will need to find new routes to consumers and should prepare for some of this stay-at-home behaviour to stick, as 54% of people globally are nervous about resuming normal activities after the pandemic.4

Man delivering some packages

COVID-19 has accelerated changes to shopping which were already on the horizon. Despite the losses, stores and high streets will bounce back. But they will be competing for fewer shoppers. Office for National Statistics figures showed that as soon as non-essential retail reopened on 15 June, shoppers returned, and the proportion of online sales has dropped in every month since. Retailers will therefore need to be selective in the stores they choose to keep open. It’s likely that consumers will continue to stay close to home; 43% of shoppers around the world say they want to shop more often at small local retailers, once restrictions ease.

As we have seen throughout this crisis, behaviours can change very quickly in response to a change in our environment. However, the attitudes, beliefs and motivations which also affect behaviour over the longer term are more resilient. It’s likely the digital acceleration will continue, and the retailers that can adapt will be the ones that prosper.

Forty-three per cent of shoppers around the world say they want to shop at small local retailers more often, once restrictions ease

James Llewellyn

James Llewellyn

UK Head of Shopper


  3. Ipsos omnibus survey, among 1,000 respondents on 21 November 2020
  4. Ipsos ESSENTIALS survey, conducted 22 – 25 October 2020 on the Global Advisor online platform among 14,500 adults aged 18-74 in Canada and the United States and 16-74 in Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea and the United Kingdom