The rise of the virtual high street: How the pandemic has reshaped our buying habits


The pandemic has transformed the high street, with smaller retail brands having to quickly innovate, and global household names becoming more agile to meet consumer demands and expectations.

Exploring the shift from bricks and mortar stores to an increased online shopping culture, leading technology company offering media services to businesses, Student Beans, has shared the surprising trends across the retail sector over the last year, while predicting how the world of ecommerce will only continue to grow.

Shopping habits among Generation Z have undoubtedly shifted in the ever-changing retail landscape. With more time than ever spent indoors and online, socialising, working, and consuming more online entertainment, lockdown has changed spending behaviour amongst young people, developing interesting trends across the UK and US. 

Becky Kells, B2B Editor at Student Beans, says: “After a year of reduced activities and sporadic lockdowns, it’s fair to say that students have their fair share of pent-up demand. Through regular touchpoints with our student community, we have noticed that their enthusiasm and excitement to resume certain activities currently on hold due to lockdown has skyrocketed in recent weeks.

For example, in the UK when lockdown first hit, 67% were excited to go out for dinner when restrictions resumed. This has now grown to 77%. Student’s enthusiasm for in-person activities has grown 11%, and interest in nightlife has increased by 12% - a surprise for a generation not so frequently drawn to alcohol-related activities.

This of course will have a knock-on effect on shopping across fashion, beauty and more; when we surveyed our students in March 2021, 56% had already browsed clothes for the summer, with 32% making a clothing-related purchases.“ In the US, the mood is similar - with 59% of students saying they are cautiously optimistic, and 18% saying they’re very optimistic for a world after COVID.

This has translated into their shopping habits - particularly with summer fast approaching. As of April, 85% of US Gen Z users had browsed clothes for the summer, with 61% having bought summer clothing - a strong indication that this cohort are feeling confident that they’ll be out and about during the summer months.” 

Year on Year data from Student Beans has also tracked the trends of the pandemic, as student shoppers convert to online purchasing. US categories including sports and outdoors and studying and stationary have boomed, with interest increasing by over 200% across the year. Travel and entertainment sectors also saw a large uplift of 110% and 140% respectively, due to the US having looser travel restrictions throughout 2020 than the UK which had multiple national lockdowns, and cross-country travel remaining an option. Coinciding with the boom in leisure activities, Student Beans saw a large 55% dip in home and utilities interest throughout the pandemic, showing the focus remained on outdoor activities for many US consumers. 

However, in comparison, UK student spending saw a huge 195% increase in home and utilities over the last year, and 90% more sports and outdoors interest too, which could be due to two lockdowns throughout 2020 forcing people to spend more time at home, making this a perfect time for DIY, investing in home renovations, and enjoying gardening activities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UK sector recorded a 55% decrease in travel-related interest, greatly differing from the US student trends throughout this time. 

Following the pandemic, prospective forecasts outline that online demand will continue to thrive among students due to convenience and speed. Mike Eder, Managing Director and Student Beans explains: “In the past year alone, we have estimated to have saved around for UK students who are using our money-saving app, and we will continue to strive towards increasing this amount across our user base.  Our growth shows no signs of slowing down and the current run rate indicates our revenue will reach £30 million in 2021.”

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