UK online grocery sales likely to surge by a quarter amid lockdown

Online grocery sales are expected to surge by more than a quarter this year as the coronavirus lockdown prompts more families to shop from home.

Supermarkets have ramped up online operations to serve millions more shoppers as fears of catching Covid-19 have driven demand from vulnerable shoppers, including the elderly, as well as families trying to avoid trips to the shops.

Tesco alone has more than doubled its number of delivery slots, including click and collect, to 1.2m in six weeks and Sainsbury’s is on course to increase its number of slots by more than 75% to 600,000 this week. Asda, Morrisons, Iceland and Waitrose have also significantly upped their deliveries.

Will there be a second wave of coronavirus?

Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.

How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.

This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.

Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.

Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.

Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.

The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.

In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry right now is that with a vaccine still months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.

Peter Beaumont

Thomas Brereton, a retail analyst at research firm GlobalData, suggested that the switch to shopping from home was unlikely to reverse even if the government-imposed lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus is eased later in the year.

“The online grocery market is now forecast to grow 25.5% in 2020 – significantly ahead of the 8.5% previously anticipated,” Brereton said. “On top of the initial increase in volume demand (about 30% in April), a continued reluctance to venture to stores for the rest of the year will bolster online market growth over a longer period than in store.”

The latest prediction came after it emerged that online sales grew to account for 10.2% of the grocery market in the three months to 19 April, up from about 7% previously, according to market analysts Kantar. Its regular survey found that older shoppers in particular had taken to internet shopping, increasing their online grocery spend by 94% year on year.

Despite the rapid growth, supermarkets have admitted they cannot keep up with even higher demand.

It takes time to develop infrastructure to service home deliveries, including additional vans, staff to pick groceries from shelves or new “dark stores” or warehouses.

Ocado, the online grocery specialist, for example, has struggled to expand its service, because it relies on robot-driven facilities that take months or years to build. The grocers with physical stores have been able to adapt more quickly by setting aside time when supermarkets are closed to pick online orders or by extending click and collect or home delivery services to more outlets.

The effort to meet demand has become more pressing as consumer and disability rights groups have warned that thousands are not getting the help they need during the pandemic.

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