Retail revolution: from loo roll to home deliveries

Post-virus everything is going to change. That’s the dominant view of national and international media. But how exactly do they see the future? This regular digest section gives some of their answers and views/Edited by George Hamilton

In this edition (June 5)

Lockdown: Northern Ireland shoppers spend 20% more on groceries in last three months

  • We are buying more ingredients for home-cooking

Sales bring fastest fall in shop prices for 14 years

  • Retailers making cuts to shift stock

From loo roll to hot tubs: The consumer trends behind Britain’s lockdown

  • You can tell a lot about a nation by looking at its buying habits. So what have 10 weeks of lockdown told us about Britain?

Supermarkets shaken by consumers’ seismic shift online

  • The pandemic forced changes to the grocery sector that may never be reversed

Nissan warns Sunderland plant can’t survive no-deal Brexit

  • Carmaker said it would not be able to stand by its commitment to Sunderland if the UK failed to secure tariff-free access to EU markets

‘Do ministers realise the brewing constitutional crisis at the heart of the Brexit deal?’

  • A leading Brexiteer says UK can only be sure it is totally leaving the EU by – wait for it – ripping up the Irish protocol (ie sea border): a warning to BoJo?

One in three would rather not go back to the office after lockdown

  • Survey respondents said they would prefer to work from home three to four days a week

Pets, kids and dance music: the perils of virtual courts in Ireland

  • Since April, almost 200 online hearings have taken place

Lockdown: Northern Ireland shoppers spend 20% more on groceries in last three months

Sales of groceries in Northern Ireland were up 4.4% over the last year – and in the last three months, covering the run-up to lockdown, growth in sales spiked to nearly 20%, information company Kantar said.

Emer Healy, retail analyst at Kantar, said: “The Northern Irish grocery market recorded strong growth in the past year largely reflecting the impact of the recent lockdown. Total take-home grocery sales grew by 4.4% during the 52 weeks to 17 May 2020.

“Looking at the latest 12-week period, growth spiked to 19.7%, as people stocked up pre-lockdown and continued to eat more meals at home.”

She said sales of household cleaners and liquid soap were up by 14.4% and 40.2% respectively.

And with restaurants closed during lockdown, the cookbooks have come out. Ms Healy said: “People are turning to the kitchen to stay entertained, and home cooking has increased by 11.7%, with those looking to recreate their favourite restaurant meals boosting sales of international ingredients by 26.6% year on year.”

Tesco, which has around 50 stores here, had retained its position as Northern Ireland’s top grocer, with a market share of 35.3% and sales growth of 4.9%.

Even though people were spending more per shop at Asda, its sales were down because shopper numbers had fallen -leaving it with a weakened market share of 16.1%. Sainsbury’s was boosted by a 2.2% increase in shopper frequency as well as a boost in trip size to grow its sales by 4.2%. Its market share was 7.2%. German discounter Lidl remained the fastest-growing grocer. It has been reporting the strongest growth – though it remains in fourth place behind Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda. Belfast Telegraph June 3

Sales bring fastest fall in shop prices for 14 years

Figures from the British Retail Consortium revealed that price deflation accelerated in May to a 2.4 per cent decline from a 1.7 per cent fall in April. Prices have not fallen faster since the trade association began to compile data, collected by Nielsen, the market researcher, in December 2006.

The deflation was driven by tumbling non-food prices, down 4.6 per cent in May compared with 3.7 per cent in April, as clothing and furniture stores ran promotions to lure buyers. Non-food prices have been falling for a while, but the rate of decline is more than double the annual average of 1.9 per cent.

Food prices rose by 1.5 per cent, a lower rise than the 1.8 per cent recorded in April.

Year-on-year food prices increased slightly due to higher business costs, implementing social distancing measures and the upward pressure from labour shortages, but were down on the previous month as more home-grown produce became available,” Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the consortium, said.

Fresh food price inflation halved to 0.5 per cent in May from 1 per cent in April, which was below the 12 and six-month average price rises of 0.8 per cent and 0.6 per cent, respectively.

Bar the grocery sector, retailers have been hit hard by the pandemic lockdown. Even DIY stores and garden centres, where demand has flourished, have struggled. As shops reopen this month, sales are expected to improve, but social distancing and lingering concerns are expected to slow any revival. The Times June 3

From loo roll to hot tubs: The consumer trends behind Britain’s lockdown

Consumer habits tend to reveal a nation’s state of mind, and during the coronavirus lockdown, Britain’s shoppers have slalomed from panic to prepping, boredom to aspiration, acceptance to future planning. At every emotional stage, a spike in sales for particular items can be registered, as well as a few curiosities.

It has been extremely interesting to see,” Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, a consumer and business psychologist at University College London, says. “Experts couldn’t have guessed exactly what would happen, but in shopping habits, humans are to some extent predictable: we fight to survive, then we nest, then we plan and adapt.”

According to Kantar WorldPanel, even in the first week of March, toilet paper sales increased by 60 per cent year-on-year, while Amazon reported a 100 per cent spike. By the end of the month, despite no evidence that coronavirus symptoms required more paper, fights were starting in supermarkets and deliveries were even reported stolen.

That one was fascinating, because it was such a conspicuous product,” says Philip Graves, a consumer psychologist. “If people had bought 16 tins of sardines it wouldn’t have been so obvious, but when you see extra loo roll in someone’s trolley you notice. Then you see emptier shelves and panic. Then others do the same, the media report it, and regardless of the fact extra wasn’t needed, the implicit message was that people are stocking up, so you should too.”

Loo roll stuffed into one cupboard, pasta and tinned tomatoes in another, next it was time to get resourceful, and that meant making bread. Sales of flour rose (must have found some yeast, then) by 92 per cent by the end of March, with mills working overtime to keep up with demand.

Other people – a lot of other people – preferred more traditional ways to waste time. Sales of puzzles increased by 223 per cent, and Lego sets by 240 per cent. A lot of those purchases were for children stuck inside and off-school from March 22, but adults joined in too.

Foam rollers, yoga mats, Pilates balance balls, rowing machines, treadmills, and so on were in demand as fitness equipment sales soared by 170 per cent. Maybe they wanted to burn off all that bread.

Six weeks in, at least six weeks’ hair growth. John Lewis reported a 200 per cent spike in sales of hair clippers, with a representative describing “unprecedented demand.”

Confirmation of our thirstiness came in late April, when the Office for National Statistics said alcohol-focused stores saw a 31 per cent surge in sales volumes.

Unsurprisingly, two and a half months locked in our homes has caused us to notice one or two things we’d change. That lamp. Those curtains. Why don’t we finally put up those shelves? And so to B&Q, Homebase, DIY stores and – as photographs of queues iillustrate – to Ikea. Some shoppers waited for four hours to get into the Swedish one-way flatpack haven. Daily Telegraph June 2

Supermarkets shaken by consumers’ seismic shift online

Although the four big supermarket chains control two thirds of the food market, online groceries had been trundling along with a meagre 7 per cent share, despite continued chatter about consumers switching to internet shopping.

The pandemic has brought a seismic shift. The dramatic leap in demand has almost doubled the proportion of food bought online to 13 per cent in only 12 weeks, according to figures from Nielsen, the market researcher. There are now 10.4 million households shopping online, compared with 4.8 million a year ago.

It took 23 years for the online grocery market to get from zero to 7 per cent and in the space of 12 weeks it has doubled,” Clive Black, a retail specialist at Shore Capital, the broker, said. “If you had been sitting in the boardrooms of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons at the start of the year and said, ‘Your online sales will double this year and you won’t have to buy anything’, they would have thought you were insane.”

Yet all admit that it is impossible to meet demand. Tesco offered 660,000 home delivery slots a week before Covid-19 emerged and is now running about 1.3 million, almost double what its rivals can offer. Even so, Dave Lewis, Tesco’s chief executive, has encouraged healthy shoppers to visit supermarkets instead.

The truth of the matter is that we could all massively expand the slots, but the demand is still higher than we can handle,” Nigel Blunt, group ecommerce director at Sainsbury’s, said. To boost capacity, Sainsbury’s has doubled the number of stores that offer click-and-collect services and the supermarket “is now doing more click-and-collect orders in a day than we used to do in a week”.

The sustained high demand has shown that the crisis has fundamentally altered shopping behaviour and industry experts believe that people who have tried online shopping for the first time might be encouraged to stay with it.

Before the pandemic, online deliveries had proved to be a bugbear for supermarkets because the cost of deliveries meant it was difficult to make money from them — part of the reason why Marks & Spencer held off for so long. However, the crisis has led to much bigger weekly shops and more people buying online in a local area, so deliveries can be grouped together.

Still, Mike Coupe, the former chief executive of Sainsbury’s, said last month that even when basket sizes had been 50 per cent higher, “it’s still not as profitable as people going to a conventional supermarket to pick their own shopping and take it home”.

If the online frenzy subsides, more shoppers may finally be able to bag more delivery slots, but it could come at a significant cost to the supermarkets. The Times June 2

Nissan warns Sunderland plant can’t survive no-deal Brexit

Nissan warned its Sunderland plant will not be sustainable if the UK and EU fail to agree a trade a deal in ongoing Brexit negotiations.

Ashwani Gupta, the carmaker’s global chief operating officer, said Nissan would not be able to stand by its commitment to its Sunderland base if the UK failed to secure tariff-free access to EU markets.

In an interview with the BBC, Mr Gupta said: “If we are not getting the current tariffs, it’s not our intention but the business will not be sustainable. That’s what everybody has to understand.”

It comes less than a week after the future of the Sunderland plant looked secure for years to come, following the Japanese company’s decision to shut its Spanish factory.

As a result, Sunderland was expected to become Nissan’s European manufacturing hub – making it highly likely to stay open and protecting 6,000 workers, along with another 27,000 jobs in the supply chain.

On a visit to the plant to celebrate production beginning on a new model, the firm’s Europe chairman Gianluca Di Ficcy warned that manufacturing in the UK would not be affordable without a trade deal.

He said: “If no deal means tariffs, our European business model will be in jeopardy. A 10pc additional cost [from tariffs] means a 10pc additional loss.”

Nissan wants to ensure that the 70pc of cars it manufactures at Sunderland which are then sold in the EU do not face tariffs of 10pc under World Trade Organization rules – the legal default if a trade deal is not agreed.

A no-deal exit could also wreck the carmaker’s ability to quickly and cheaply bring in parts. Daily Telegraph June 3

‘Do ministers realise the brewing constitutional crisis at the heart of the Brexit deal?’

Ben Habib: I must warn of a brewing constitutional crisis. It comes in the form of the Northern Irish Protocol, the Prime Minister’s solution to the Northern Irish Backstop which had so vexed Mrs. May’s administration.

Recent comments made by senior members of the Conservative Party suggest they do not appreciate how the Protocol operates. At the House of Lords’ European Union Select Committee meeting last week, Lord Cavendish asked Michael Gove if the EU’s obligation to use best endeavours to give effect to the terms of the Political Declaration (a heads of terms agreement covering the future arrangements) could be used to negotiate away the Protocol. Mr Gove replied in one word: “Absolutely”.

He was absolutely wrong. What he should have told Lord Cavendish is the Protocol is already legally binding. It forms an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement, which came into force on 31 January 2020. There is no way to use any contractual pressure to make the EU give way on it. The Protocol exists and is enforceable.

Pursuant to its terms Northern Ireland is, to all intents and purposes, left behind in the EU’s Customs Union. Once the UK leaves the transition period, there will be a border down the Irish Sea with the requirement for goods declarations going both ways.

The Protocol also condemns Northern Ireland to adopting EU state aid laws; those which exist at the moment as well as those which might be passed in the future – full dynamic alignment. For companies with operations in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, there would be the added consequence of EU regulatory creep across all of the UK.

To make matters worse, there is a requirement for Northern Ireland to adopt EU law in respect of excise duties and VAT.

And, perhaps the worst provision of all, the terms of the Protocol will ultimately be adjudicated by the Court of Justice of the European Union. Northern Ireland will have the EU’s supreme-court overseeing large swathes of its laws including judgement of the UK’s own adherence to the Protocol.

In a report published by the Lords, they themselves admit they do not understand how the government squares its claims of there being no need for declarations on goods coming into Great Britain from Northern Ireland with the Protocol’s substantive operating provisions committing Northern Ireland to the entirety of EU customs legislation.

It is because of the huge advantages the EU gains from the Protocol that it is so keen to ensure the UK is preparing properly to implement it. It is also for this same reason the UK is dragging its heels and members of the government trying to give the opposite impression. But this cuckoo’s egg will hatch when the UK exits the transition period.

Paradoxically, the harder the Brexit for the rest of the UK (for example without any agreement on future arrangements) the starker the effects of the Protocol. Only if the UK establishes a very close future trading and constitutional arrangement with the EU could its ill effects be masked. Therein lies the danger.

There is an enormous incentive, contrary to all rhetoric, for the government to establish a very close relationship with the EU. We are already beginning to see a weakening in the government’s resolve.

The only proper way out of this mess is for the cuckoo’s egg to be pushed out of the nest. The government must be prepared unilaterally to repudiate the Protocol. Indeed it is the only way to deliver Brexit and stay true to its manifesto pledges.

The best answer Mr Gove could have given Lord Cavendish is, irrespective of the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, with or without a deal with the EU, the UK will rip up the Protocol. Only then could we be confident in the UK leaving the EU whole with genuine control of its borders, its laws and its cash. Ben Habib is chairman of Brexit Watch and former Brexit Party MEP. Daily Telegraph June 2

One in three would rather not go back to the office after lockdown

In the UK behaviour is shifting in ways that could have considerable implications for different industries and the wider economy, a survey of changing social attitudes has found.

The lockdown has caused a spike in online gaming, DIY and indoor hobbies, trends that are likely to persist, the survey of 1,500 people by Jefferies, the investment bank, found.

Respondents were wary about mingling in restaurants, pubs and cinemas, which suggests those sectors will continue to struggle even as social restrictions are eased.

Sixty per cent of respondents said they would to return to work immediately if allowed, but 35 per cent would prefer to work from home three to four days a week.

However, Jefferies said the longer-term shift to home working implied by the results was “smaller than we might have expected”.

Restaurants and pubs may struggle because 21 per cent of people said they would not visit such venues even if social-distancing measures were in place. “This points to a slow pace of recovery in the on-trade in the new normal world,” Jefferies analysts said.

Half of respondents planned to dine out less than they did before lockdown. Two-metre social distancing and a vaccine were cited as the main requirements for people to return to restaurants and pubs. Cinemas, theatres and betting shops were also no-go areas for more than half of respondents.

While going overseas was the top priority for discretionary spending once the pandemic is over, with 23 per cent of respondents looking forward to a trip, 41 per cent planned to take fewer holidays. Many were also concerned about staying in hotels, with 75 per cent saying they would wait until at least three months after the lockdown is over.

The winners from these changing social attitudes have been the gaming companies. Not only have people spent more time playing video games, they have increased their in-game purchases. More than half of men, the under-55s, students and the full-time employed reported playing more video games and spending more on them.

Of those who have been doing up their homes, 37 per cent said they planned to continue with DIY after restrictions ease. Just over half of respondents said they had fixed up their home since lockdown began on March 23. The Times June 3

Pets, kids and dance music: the perils of virtual courts in Ireland

For about a minute last Thursday the sound of cheesy 1990s dance music could be heard coming from Court 12 on the second floor of the Four Courts.

Mr Boyle could you turn off your microphone?” pleaded Mr Justice Garrett Simons. “Could someone on the State side tell Mr Boyle to turn off his microphone?” The music soon stopped and the barristers went back to arguing about the subject matter of the case – working conditions for electricians.

Of course, none of this actually happened in Court 12 which, aside from the registrar and a reporter, remained completely empty. Rather it happened on the video screens mounted on the walls.

Virtual court hearings have become almost routine in the Four Courts since they were first trialled in April as a means of keeping the wheels of justice turning amid the lockdown.

But the profession has not escaped the pitfalls experienced by the rest of us as we try to figure out how to conduct business over Zoom and Skype. Stories circulate on lawyers’ WhatsApp groups about pets and children interrupting pleadings.

One of the most common ones I’ve heard about is the doorbell ringing,” says senior counsel Denise Brett SC. Brett, a barrister focusing on civil law and legal education, can do her court appearances from her home office but not everyone is so lucky; one barrister recalls a colleague being gently reminded that his bed and pillows were perhaps not the best backdrop for a Court of Appeal case.

Remote hearings have been on the horizon for years now but the Court Service’s archaic IT infrastructure meant they remained purely aspirational. That changed with the arrival of the pandemic in Ireland and the prospect of the justice system grinding to a complete halt.

At the direction of Chief Justice Frank Clarke, the Court Service started running mock virtual hearings in mid-April. On April 20th, the Supreme Court held the first official virtual hearing.

Since then there have been 180 virtual hearings from the District Court to the Supreme Court, “negating the need for thousands of people to attend physically in court”, a spokesman said.

Furthermore, just under 200 judgments have been distributed “electronically”, meaning they are emailed out instead of the parties turning up to court to hear them being read out.

The system uses video-conferencing technology designed to be easy to use, meaning it lacks many of the features of the popular apps. The judge – or judges if the case is before the Supreme Court or Court of Appeal – appear on the main display while everyone else is minimised to the bottom.

According to barristers, the technology has drastically changed the dynamic of arguing a case, for both good and bad.

In normal hearings there is what Brett calls “a natural flow” to arguing a case where judges will interrupt advocates to ask questions or seek clarification.

Not being able to read the room “is one of the biggest drawbacks to remote hearings” says barrister Aoife McNickle who was involved in an early virtual hearing before the criminal division of the Court of Appeal. “That’s one of the main reasons why they will never be a substitute for physical hearings.”

Most barristers like to inject a slight bit of drama into their arguments, even in the dullest of cases. It could be gesture such as waving a document or just resting a foot on the bench (the latter being confined almost exclusively to male barristers). Much of that drama is also absent from virtual proceedings, says McNickle. “Which is a shame.”

But, depending on the barrister, that charisma still comes across, she says. “It’s about how comfortable people are with the system.” Irish Times June 3

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