The prospect of weeks trapped at home has seen Britons embark on unlikely shopping sprees as they create home offices and gyms but also embrace hobbies ranging from dressmaking to jigsaw puzzling and growing their own veg.
With all non-essential high street shops and some websites now closed, what is left of high street trade is online as households hunker down and seek ways to keep themselves and their children entertained.
During week one of the government’s new home isolation rules, online sales were “fairly flat” on a year ago, according to the IMRG Capgemini online retail index. However, that measure, based on the web sales of 200 retailers, masked seesawing demand: while sales of electricals and DIY products were up 42% and 14% respectively, sales of clothing fell 27% and demand for footwear slumped 38%.
On Thursday Dixons Carphone, which also owns Currys, said online sales had jumped 72% over the last three weeks thanks to bumper sales of computers and printers as well as TVs, games consoles and household appliances like freezers. John Lewis also reported high demand for home office furniture such as desks and chairs as whole families attempted to work side by side at home.
With vulnerable sections of the population advised to stay home for 12 weeks – and the country’s schools also closed – it should perhaps come as no surprise that jigsaw puzzles are having a moment. John Lewis said demand was higher than at Christmas, which is usually the annual sales peak. More than half of the retailer’s puzzles – including all the 1,000-piece ones – have been sold.
In another sign that people are trying to be creative with the new-found time on their hands, the department store chain said demand for craft kits, wool and sewing machines had risen. High street crafts shop and stationer The Works has also reported a run on home school supplies, “mindfulness material” and colouring books.
The closure of gyms and leisure centres has made keeping fit a national preoccupation. Alongside millions tuning in to the YouTube workouts of fitness supremo Joe Wicks, there has been a surge in demand for exercise equipment ranging from inexpensive starter kits such as dumbbells and skipping ropes to major purchases such as treadmills and multi-gyms.
Fitness Superstore, the UK’s biggest supplier of specialist equipment, said the sheer volume of orders in recent weeks had “driven all areas of our business to maximum capacity”. The company has imposed a £200 minimum spend to slow the rate of orders coming into its Northampton distribution centre. “We have seen a level of demand that dwarfs even our peak trading times of Christmas and January,” the company reports on its website.
With children mostly banished from nurseries and schools, the family-run online retailer Outdoor Toys joined other retailers in reporting strong sales of swings, climbing frames, trampolines and football goals as parents tried to keep them away from screens.
Before garden centres closed their doors, they had experienced a mini sales boom as gardeners stocked up for the season ahead. The Blue Diamond Group, which has 37 centres, said the day after the government urged people to work from home where possible, sales were 64% higher than in 2019. Big sellers included compost and seeds, both up 250%, and propagation products, up 150%. The managing director, Alan Roper, said: “The garden is a sanctuary. No one wants to be isolated just in their house. It’s good for the mind … it gives you a sense of well-being.”
Dobbies, the UK’s biggest garden centre chain, also reported a sharp rise in sales, with some shoppers seemingly starting from scratch, buying cultivating tools including hoes, rakes, hand tools and secateurs.
But the gardening frenzy has caught some companies off guard. The specialist firm Sarah Raven has temporarily stopped taking orders for seeds and gardening kits as it tries to catch up with a backlog of orders. The company, founded by East Sussex-based gardener Sarah Raven, is still dispatching plants and bulbs but warned that orders are taking longer than usual.
Raven said planting flowers would give people some much needed joy: “Get your annual seeds now – nigella, poppies, cosmos, zinnias, snapdragons, which are the most joyful and life-enhancing thing you could have from May onwards. And plant potatoes, sow courgettes, tomatoes, and tons and tons of salads and herbs.”