The 2020s will be analysed for decades to come with the Covid-19 pandemic being one of the biggest global events in peacetime. Everyone has been affected over the past two years but the retail sector is having a particularly difficult time with almost 50 high street stores closing every day, according to the latest UK figures.
Luckily, we don’t need to wait for research companies and historians to lift the lid on what’s going on because search data tells us what consumers are doing in real-time. In this article, we take a look at how Google Trends data reveals the changing consumer habits of consumers in the UK throughout the pandemic (data and images courtesy of Think with Google).
Search data provides real-time insights
Throughout the pandemic, Google has published insights revealing the dramatic shifts in consumer behaviour as government restrictions, infection rates and public attitudes have changed.
Google has live access to the interests, concerns and actions of everyone using search or a Google Account – from UK consumers to the business owners fighting to make it through the most challenging period in decades.
Search data offers the most honest reflection of what’s going on in the mind of consumers and business owners – not based on questions and the retrospective answers people choose to give, but on their actions.
We can look at search data to understand all of the following in real-time:
- How people feel
- What people know
- How people make a living
- How people learn
- What people do
So let’s take a look at some of the insights search data has revealed throughout the pandemic.
Insights from the first lockdown in early 2020
As the UK counted in 2020 at midnight on New Year’s Eve, news of a highly contagious coronavirus circulating in China was already making headline news and the first confirmed cases in the UK were recorded on January 29.
On 23 March 2020, Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown, instructing the public to stay at home and all non-essential businesses to close their doors.
An initial focus on longevity
Search data shows that, when the UK first went into lockdown, the focus was on longevity with searches for “can you freeze” recipes and food items increasing by 5.5X or 450%.
Consumers carefully chose groceries to see themselves through an indefinite lockdown with increased searches for staple foods and a soaring interest in home baking. Flour became one of the most in-demand products during the first lockdown, resulting in a shortage of the ingredient contrasting with an abundance of banana bread posts across social media.
Adapting to life at home
With schools and workplaces closed, families were confined to their homes and the realities of working, studying and living in the same building created new challenges. The scramble to create home offices and classrooms drove a 140% increase in searches for desks while a 400% increase in searches for “what is a verb?” revealed some of the anxiety parents were facing in their new roles as home teachers.
Confined to the home, UK consumers ordered just about everything online and demand for deliveries increased by 500%. Search trends never seen before in significant volumes emerged throughout lockdown, including searches for “fish and chips delivery,” balloons deliver” and (can you believe it) “tea delivery”.
As lockdown progressed, so did search interests and the focus gradually shifted from longevity into enjoyment and mental survival. With the banana bread trend phasing out, home cooks turned to recreating some of their more indulgent choices from a pre-Covid world – as seen in a 10X increase of searches for “how to make chicken nuggets”.
Even the searches for tea became more elaborate with a 10X increase in searches for “afternoon tea delivery” during the latter stages of lockdown.
The shift towards life improvement
In response to being confined at home, many people in the UK turned to self and home improvement to create a better relationship with their environment. In March 2020, searches for online yoga had increased by 1,000% from the previous year while searches for “living room colours” increased by 110%.
At the same time, people filled their time learning new skills for the long-term, as seen in the growing interest in baking, DIY and the 10X increases in searches for “how to play guitar”.
Interest in makeup and the clothing you would associate with going out plummeted but searches for “how to cut your own hair” increased by 1,000%, followed by a 100% increase in searches for “how to fix bad hair” and a social media trend of posting images of lockdown haircuts gone wrong.
The desire for a return to ‘normality’
As the weeks of lockdown slowly tallied up, the desire for a return to normality intensified and this was visible in the search data. As the trend of lockdown haircuts grew thin, the urge to do things we once took for granted grew and the dominant search trend became “when will [business/service] open” searches.
In the meantime, people found ways to interact online while they were unable to meet in public with a 300% increase in searches related to online gaming and a 1,000% increase in searches for online pub quizzes.
Then, with lockdown rules easing towards the end of May, optimism grew that the second half of 2020 could deliver some sense of normality and the worst of the pandemic might be over.
Insights from the second half of 2020
Unfortunately, one lockdown wasn’t enough to overcome the pandemic and the UK faced further restrictions in the second half of 2020 but the second lockdown revealed very different behaviours to the first.
Online shopping here to stay
As the first lockdown eased, online shopping habits remained and it was clear that businesses with an online presence were positioned for the best recovery.
It wasn’t simply a fear of Covid-19 that was encouraging people to do more of their shopping online, either. In fact, the virus polled last out of eight reasons for people choosing to buy their next mobile phone online instead of visiting a high street store.
However, retailers need to understand that the average expectations of online consumers have changed as a result of the drive towards online shopping. If you take a look at the perception of consumers who were digitally converted during the pandemic compared to those who were mostly shopping online before the outbreak, you can see several disparities:
Shoppers who are less used to buying online are more sensitive to the limitations on online experiences – eg: not being able to try clothes on, see products in-person, buy products instantly, etc.
With more of these people shopping online more often, retailers need to address these challenges more effectively, wherever possible. For example, you might optimise the browsing experience, include higher-res images and shorten delivery times to improve the overall experience for people less used to shopping online.
Taking advantage of short-term trends
Given the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, businesses have to respond to the short-term needs of consumers to maximise recovery. Again, this is why real-time search data is so valuable: it helps businesses respond to changes in consumer demand quickly.
Travel has been a perfect example of this with companies having to cater for an increased demand for holidays – both in the UK and overseas.
Demand for international travel has fluctuated immensely during the pandemic with entry restrictions changing overnight in the UK and popular holiday destinations. All of this uncertainty has fuelled a boom in travel within the UK, including family getaways and a preference for short-term rentals over hotels.
As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, consumers are willing to spend serious money on purchases and this has included a rise in expensive holiday bookings within the UK – something that has also resulted in price inflation.
This has been true throughout the pandemic, though, with UK consumers planning for Christmas earlier in 2020 and planning to spend more than the previous year, despite the ongoing uncertainty.
Turning search insights into business opportunities
Businesses were hit hard by the pandemic and many retailers are still fighting for survival almost two years later. However, some retailers have managed to thrive during this difficult period by transitioning to online demand and responding to trends quickly.
Search data reveals the changing interests of consumers, as they evolve, and companies can use real-time insights to inform key business decisions. In this article, we’ve summarised some of the key trends to emerge throughout the pandemic but there’s far more depth to the data available than we’ve been able to cover here today.
Retailers have to respond to the new normal – one that’s dominated by search and online shopping.