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How consumers shopped in (and out of) lockdown in 2021

  

Read time: 7 mins

Looking for the highlights? Here are three things you need to know:

  • Orders and referrals are consistently higher than pre-pandemic across all sectors
  • Online orders in the beauty sector peaked after lockdown
  • Despite fluctuations throughout the year, there's been a clear shift to ecommerce

And just like that, 2021 is (almost) behind us. 

Skirting around the current situation, this year has been an improvement on last. After entering January in lockdown 3.0, we enjoyed restrictions gradually easing in the Spring followed by celebrating the much-anticipated ‘Freedom Day’ in July.

As our lifestyles adapted to these constantly evolving circumstances, so too did online order and referral trends in each sector. Based on our 450+ clients, we’ve analysed how consumer behaviours have changed throughout the course of this year. Rather than compare to the rollercoaster year that was 2020, we’ve compared online orders and referrals to pre-pandemic 2019 to give a better sense of perspective. 

Read on to discover how consumers shopped in 2021 (and how we think they’ll shop in 2022).

Food and drinkFood and drink brands

When the UK first went into lockdown back in March 2020, online food and drink brands were among the first to see orders rocket. Up-and-coming disruptors found themselves going mainstream as Brits avoided supermarkets and attempted to create gourmet experiences at home. Overnight, hundreds of food and drink brands went from painstakingly acquiring new customers to struggling to fulfil a sudden rush of orders. 

Entering 2021, online orders sharply increased for food and drink brands once more as the UK entered its third lockdown at the end of the first week. This trend continued building until early March, with online orders peaking at 286% higher than at the same time in 2019

Meanwhile, customers were busy telling their friends and family about the brands keeping them fed and watered. Our food and drink clients acquired a staggering 329% more customers at its Q1 2021 peak than in 2019.

Then, in March, outdoor hospitality venues reopened – and online orders dropped. This trend continued throughout the year, with a couple of fluctuations here and there. But even at their lowest point, online order volumes were 52% higher than in 2019.

Despite the return of cafes and restaurants, customer recommendations continued to drive growth for food and drink brands. Rather than simply lose those new customers who no longer needed to buy food and drink online, these brands used their referral channel to engage both new and long-time shoppers, rewarding them for introducing friends and family. 

Put into the context of life post-lockdown, it’s unsurprising. After spending so long apart, friends and family reunited around dinner tables across the nation – no doubt sparking countless requests for recipes and asking where they order similar gourmet treats when it was their turn to host. 

Though online orders and referrals for our food and drink clients are ending the year on a downwards trajectory, two things are key to bear in mind. Firstly, both volumes are consistently higher than this time in 2019. Secondly, we saw an uptick as the latest variant caused more people to stay home and stock up on festive goodies online. In the days leading up to Christmas, orders and referrals peaked at 105% higher than this time two years ago.

Home and gardenHome and garden brands

Next up, home and garden. This is another sector that saw online orders and referrals soar in the midst of the pandemic, as people finally vowed to replace that wonky armchair or do up the living room while stuck at home. 

This desire to give our homes and gardens a glow-up grew as new legislation ruled that people could meet up in their gardens – making comfy outdoor furniture and a toasty heater (or two) essential. By mid-March, online orders were 170% higher than in 2019

Meanwhile, people continued to seek inspiration from others, asking colleagues on Zoom calls where their wall prints were from, or seeking out the chic terracotta plant pot spotted in their friend’s garden. All this led to a major surge in referrals, peaking at an astounding 442% compared to 2019

While these upticks began dropping soon after hospitality venues reopened, both online orders and referrals remain higher than in 2019 among our home and garden clients.

Gifts and occasions

Gifts and occasions brands

Now onto the most tumultuous sector among our clients this year: gifts and occasions. 

During lockdown, brands in this sector saw orders soar as people sent their loved ones gifts from afar. At its highest point this year, in February, online orders were up an incredible 303% compared to 2019. Yes, you read that right: 303%. 

And when people open a gift they love, they usually ask one question: “where did you get this from!?”. That’s caused referrals to also hit significantly higher levels than in 2019, up 640% at its peak

Once non-essential retail reopened and friends reunited, however, online orders and referrals dropped as people browsed in-store for products they could gift in person. It’s no coincidence that the graph’s two most significant dips coincide with easing restrictions in April and June.

Heading into the new year, online orders are now on an uptick, currently up 98% compared to this time two years ago. Referrals, though lower than in 2019, are also on an upwards trajectory. We anticipate this to continue as people discover new brands during Christmas unwrapping and act on their friends’ referrals in the new year.

FashionFashion brands

Fashion has been an interesting sector throughout the course of the pandemic. While it initially felt pointless to buy clothes when confined to our homes, it wasn’t long before many of us stocked up on athleisure and comfy loungewear that would make working from home (and binging on boxsets) that bit easier.  

It soon became a case of not stopping buying fashion items, but simply buying different ones. Strappy stilettos were out; slippers were in. 

Of course, that changed in 2021. We splashed out on wedding outfits, treated ourselves to leggings that actually made it to the gym, and refreshed our summer holiday wardrobes. 

At its peak in March this year, online orders were up 113% compared to 2019; referrals were up 112%.

As with the other sectors, online orders and referrals dropped once non-essential retail reopened in April, but fashion has remained strong nonetheless. People are used to buying clothes online, and many brands have prioritised improving their online experience, offering speedy delivery, pay-later schemes and hassle-free returns. 

Our clients in this sector are ending the year on a high, with orders up 57% compared to the same time in 2019. Referrals are also on an upwards trajectory – currently up 13% compared to 2019 – likely spurred on by asking friends where they bought their party outfits from and buying fashionista friends Christmas gifts online.

BeautyBeauty brands

Lastly, beauty. While buying a foundation or bespoke skincare kit online might have seemed a risky move in 2019, advanced technology like virtual try-ons and ‘find your shade’ quizzes (that simultaneously capture highly coveted zero-party data) have made it the norm.

Beauty has had a solid year in 2021, with online orders and referrals consistently up higher than 2019. Unlike other sectors, online beauty orders and referrals peaked out of lockdown, reaching 153% and 143% higher in November than in 2019 respectively. 

Though now on a downwards trajectory, both online orders and referrals remain significantly higher than in 2019. Insisting on going to a beauty counter in-store to try out new products is no longer a necessity, and cosmetics lovers are embracing the endless choice available online. 

2022: the year of the (better) customer experience

As we head into what we all hope will be a calmer, less locked-down year, analysis of this kind will become easier. We can revert back to comparing year-on-year, establishing a clearer idea of which patterns were a pandemic fluke and which are now the new normal.

While the first quarter of 2022 is likely to be down year-on-year as we’ll be comparing to lockdown 3.0, we anticipate online orders and referrals across every sector to remain strong. 

Despite the fluctuations in each graph, there’s been a clear shift to ecommerce throughout the pandemic. Across every sector, online orders and referrals have remained higher than in 2019. 

As brands look to earn loyal customers (and advert-sceptic consumers seek out their friends’ recommendations), referral will become an increasingly crucial channel for long-term growth.

With 2022 also poised to bring more D2C offerings and an even greater reliance on first-party data, referral will become a marketing must-have.

Want to 2022-proof your brand? Discover how you can accelerate growth through Referral Engineering®.

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