5 learnings from an Irish Christmas in lockdown

COVID-19’s influence on our lives and behaviour made for an extraordinary Christmas. What lessons can retail and FMCG brands take into 2021?
16 February 2021
Family laughing at dinner table
Emer Healy 2020

Business Development Manager, Worldpanel Division , Ireland

2020 was a year of change and uncertainty that nobody could have predicted. COVID-19 changed the way we live our daily lives and disrupted our usual routines. After a year of seismic change, Christmas was no different as an extraordinary year came to a close. 

We know that one impact of this disruption was shoppers in Ireland started Christmas shopping earlier – 61% of respondents to a Worldpanel Plus survey in November said they started buying presents and gifts earlier than usual due to the pandemic. And in comparison to Christmases gone by, this year was a lot less sociable. 84% of people in Ireland said that they would be seeing less of family and friends than in previous years. As a result, most of us expected to take a more toned-down approach to celebrations than in previous years with only one in four preparing for an extravagant Christmas. How did this impact shoppers’ choices and behaviour during the all-important Christmas period?

1. Record grocery sales for Ireland

Pared back festivities didn’t stop Irish families from looking for ways to keep spirits high. Even though there was a temporary easing of restrictions on eating and drinking out in December, most still turned to the supermarkets to provide some sorely needed festive cheer. Travel restrictions meant a lot of people couldn’t get home to spend Christmas with their nearest and dearest, and spend in the Capital grew most strongly compared to the rest of the year.

And with a lot more time being spent at home than ever before, shoppers had more opportunity to plan for Christmas. Saturday 19 December saw over €60m in sales made in the supermarkets as shoppers stocked up. Conscientiousness around the government guidelines, which advised people to reduce their time spent out of home and avoid mass gatherings, played a role here – encouraging some to get the Christmas shop in early to avoid the last-minute rush. However, Wednesday 23 December was the biggest day for grocery trading – the same as 2015, when Christmas also fell on a Friday.

2. The unstoppable rise of online

2020 was most certainly the year of online grocery. During the month of December, a record breaking 11% of Irish households shopped online, and sales over the internet accounted for 4.1% of grocery spend, in comparison to 2.8% in 2019. With shoppers looking to reduce their time spent out of home – especially the more vulnerable groups in society – the appeal of online shopping was clear, and online took €10.5m worth of sales from bricks and mortar during December. As more shoppers continue to make the move online, we expect digital sales to go from strength to strength in the year ahead.

3. Festive plans meet reality

For most people, how they expected to spend Christmas differed hugely from reality. A lot of us had planned to see relatives or friends for Christmas or have large gatherings on the day itself. This year, however, more people had Christmas dinner at home and did not visit family or friends like they would usually. As a result, an additional 182,000 households had their Christmas dinner at home versus last year. 

As for the wider festive period, restrictions placed on the country after St Stephen’s day meant that many people were unable to host their typical celebrations, which resulted in retailers missing out on potential spend. For those who did host guests at Christmas, hygiene was a primary concern, and December saw liquid soap once again becoming the fastest growing retail category, having been outpaced by alcohol since April.

4. Trading up for Christmas

After a difficult and disrupted year, consumers put an emphasis on Christmas dinner – demonstrating that it remains the most important part of the day for many. 55% of people wanted to make their Christmas Day Meal more special than before, and we saw those who were hosting on the day spent €180 more on groceries compared with an average month and increased their spending by almost double that of guests.

Overall, sales on promotion across key categories declined, with shoppers choosing premium lines over the festive period. Similarly, home luxuries played a big part of Christmas; shoppers traded up, spending more on alcohol and treats and cutting back on categories typical for bigger gatherings – cooked meats, chilled prepared fish and fruit and veg.

5. Smaller get-togethers

With COVID-19 restrictions limiting households mixing on the big day, more of us cooked Christmas dinner than ever before. This had knock-on impacts on categories like meat and produce and – of course – alcohol.Dinner meats, produce and trimmings, niceties and alcohol all attracted new shoppers this Christmas.

These smaller gatherings resulted in whole turkeys falling out of favour, with shoppers opting for smaller cuts of meat – an additional 55,000 households bought turkey roll or roasts this Christmas. And while €1.2m less was spent on whole turkey, 21,000 more shoppers bought beef roasting joints.

Another impact of pandemic restrictions is that shoppers looked for ways to recreate out of home experiences at home. We saw more shoppers bought take-home alcohol, while existing alcohol shoppers broadened their repertoires this year. Shoppers also switched from ‘standard’ drinks, opting instead for wine and spirits.

COVID-19’s influence on our lives and behaviour over the course of 2020 made for an extraordinary Christmas. Growth in the grocery sector will stabilise in time; however, the scale and timing depends on so many unknowns: vaccine rollouts, recessionary impact, post-pandemic working from home, restriction changes, and which behavioural trends stick. Monitoring consumer behaviour closely will be paramount as we emerge from the pandemic.