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How Covid-19 is changing what Singaporeans shop for online

From dumb-bells to bubble tea pearls, consumers are now looking for things they may not have previously wanted, as they adjust to the “new normal” amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Groceries and food, indoor exercise equipment and gaming tools have emerged as the most popular categories for online shopping.

Experts say this trend towards online shopping is set to continue even after countries ease restrictions, with many predicting that e-commerce will play an even larger role in the “new normal”.

What Singapore consumers are searching for online has also revealed the new ways they are adapting to life with the coronavirus, which has led to strict safe distancing measures and forced a break in everyday habits.

A renewed interest in baking has sent online searches for flour soaring. Popular drink Milo was also much “searched after” in the first week that Singapore’s circuit breaker kicked in.

Supermarkets have seen brisk sales during the circuit breaker period, with many families now cooking at home more often than usual.

There has been more searches for flour compared with other basics like noodles and milk, according to Google Trends search data, which is an indexed measure of how popular a keyword is in any given location at any given time.

Besides staples such as rice and oil, people have also been stocking up on snacks, ice cream and beverages like Milo, retailers say. This trend took off during the initial weeks of the circuit breaker period, and was later usurped by searches on frozen food.

Non-perishable food items saw a spike in sales, but demand for fresh food – such as fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood – has also increased significantly, says e-commerce platform Shopee.

Ms Esther Ho, director of the School of Business Management at Nanyang Polytechnic, notes that this was especially because restaurants and eateries had to stop dine-in customers and allow only takeaways or delivery. 

Bubble tea shop closures didn’t stop Singaporeans from trying to get their fix, with many still looking up information on where else they could get hold of these drinks.

Interest in delivery for “comfort food” has gone up. In particular, searches for bubble tea delivery soared in April, even after standalone F&B outlets were ordered to close from April 22.

Bubble tea, which has always been a hot favourite, grew in popularity on delivery platforms as more people stayed home. On Grab, total bubble tea orders were 60 per cent higher in April compared with March.

Demand for desserts and alcoholic beverages doubled, with frozen yoghurt leading the increase for desserts, Grab adds.

Orders for coffee and breakfast offerings have picked up by over 50 per cent since tighter measures saw the closure of bubble tea joints, says Deliveroo. Fast food orders also rose by over 50 per cent.

Searches for dumb-bells and yoga mats peaked largely due to the closure of gyms and fitness studios.

Searches for workout equipment peaked at the start of the circuit breaker period as people turned to inexpensive and convenient options to set up their home gyms after gyms and fitness studios across the island were ordered to shut.

Between January and April, sporting goods retailer Decathlon noted a clear shift from outdoor sports equipment to indoor sports.

With fewer people heading out to exercise, sales of equipment for indoor sports, such as cross-training and yoga, saw an increase of more than 70 per cent.

Computer monitors and the Nintendo Switch were popular searches under electronics.

There was an uptick in interest in computer monitors in the second half of March as many started to work from home to curb the spread of the virus.

Sales of work-from-home gadgets and accessories have risen sharply as more seek to be productive and comfortable at home.

With people spending more time indoors with fewer leisure and entertainment options, many are turning to video games.

Besides game consoles, various gaming accessories, including cables, chargers, controllers and cases, were also popular buys, according to e-commerce platform Lazada.

Cooking proves a popular past time with a surge in interest in kitchen appliances and bubble tea pearl recipes.

Searches for cooking-related keywords increased before and during the circuit breaker. In late April, many Singaporeans were also keen to attempt do-it-yourself bubble tea recipes, with searches for these rising sharply. On Shopee, bubble tea pearls were also among the most sought-after items.

With more time on their hands, more people are also turning to baking. Stores selling baking ingredients have had to cope with long queues, and many are unable to replenish stocks fast enough for retail customers

Swedish furniture retailer Ikea noted that online demand for its cooking products has increased up to seven times following the outbreak.

Some people are also picking up home gardening and growing their own crops as an additional source of fresh produce.

Other popular purchases: home office furniture and beauty products

There has been a surge in searches for home office furniture, such as office chairs and desks, starting from mid-March. It reached a peak at the start of April, when the Government urged companies to allow their employees to work from home.

Ikea notes that interest in home-office-related products picked up in April as compared with the past three months, when consumers were mainly buying items related to sleep and comfort, such as bed frames and mattresses.

Facial salons were among the non-essential businesses that have had to shut their doors since the start of the circuit breaker. That prompted more people to explore DIY beauty solutions, with face masks and pimple patches emerging as popular items sold online.

Hairdressing and barber shops were also closed for nearly three weeks as part of tighter circuit breaker measures. Those in need of a trim may have tried their hand at cutting their own hair at home, with sales of hair clippers also rising.


In a post Covid-19  ‘new normal’, online shopping will be here to stay

This jump on e-commerce is here to stay, experts said, as the pandemic has accelerated a trend of shopping online.

Online retailer Lazada says it has more customers in April, surpassing its record for 11.11 or Singles’ Day in November last year, which was its biggest campaign.

With social distancing measures set to stay in place for the foreseeable future, shopper traffic at physical stores in this “new normal” will be lower than what it was pre-Covid-19, with more people choosing to shop from the comfort of their own homes, Ms Lee said.

Online shopping is also booming across South-east Asia

In South-east Asia, e-commerce takings soared 96 per cent for the week ended May 11, as compared with the same period last year, according to advertising platform Criteo.

The top product categories for the region include pet supplies, cameras and optics, furniture, toys and games and sporting goods.

With the increased demand for online shopping comes a rise in consumer complaints, such as overcharging.

There were 7,006 consumer complaints from January to April, a 45 per cent increase compared to the same period last year.

From February to April, the majority of the complaints among Singapore consumers on overcharging were related to face or surgical masks and hand sanitisers, said the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case).

An April report by the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute showed that prices of face masks in South-east Asia were much higher once people started panic buying.

There were also more instances of unscrupulous sellers profiteering from this increased demand by raising prices.

However, the price of a face mask rose the least in Singapore as compared with other South-east Asian nations.

Consumers who would like to lodge a complaint with Case can do so on their website.


Source: Criteo, Decathlon, Google Trends, Grab, Ikea, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Lazada, NTUC FairPrice, Shopee
Methodology: Criteo’s data for South-east Asia covers a total of 167 retailers in all product categories across Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. This includes 46 Singapore retailers. The data is derived based on quantity sold online.
Produced by: Sue-Ann Tan and Tin May Linn
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