British consumers made more than 79 million extra grocery shopping trips in the last four weeks, with total till sales at supermarkets surging to 20.5%, according to data released by Nielsen.

The uptick in sales was particularly pronounced in the week ending March 21, which saw a 43% weekly growth in sales, including a 67% surge in beer, wine and spirit sales because this week coincided with the closure of pubs and restaurants. 

This significant rise in grocery sales is attributed to increased stockpiling, amid health fears around the worldwide spread of the coronavirus disease Covid-19, which has since led to the UK implementing strict measures around social distancing, the closure of most public spaces and social venues and the quarantine of elderly and vulnerable citizens.

While stockpiling continues, Nielsen data reveals that over the four week period ending March 21, shoppers typically added just one extra item to their basket during each shopping trip, with the average shopping basket increasing from 10 items to 11 items, and average basket spend rising from £15 to £16 during this same period. 

While these increases are small, shoppers made three additional shopping trips during this period, and in total that equates to 79 million more shopping trips than the same time last year, all of which adds up to an extra £1.9 billion spent on groceries. 

In terms of category performance, Nielsen data shows that in the last week of February and the first week of March, shoppers focused on ‘stockpiling’ necessities, such as medicines for the family, cleaning supplies, household and pet care items and ambient groceries (shelf stable food). This continued through to the third week, with a consistent rise in these ‘pandemic pantry’ items.

However, Nielsen data shows that in the week ending March 21, many shoppers had already stocked up their cupboards and pantries with the necessities, and then began to prepare for the ‘lockdown’ by filling their freezers as well. Sales of frozen food during this week rose by 84% compared to the same period last year. 

This was also the week in which the government announced the closure of pubs and restaurants, resulting in a surge in beer, wine and spirits sales (67%), indicating a shift from consumers stockpiling on essential items to focussing on stocking up on items to maintain their lifestyles.

In terms of retailer performance, all UK supermarkets experienced significant growth in sales over the four-week period. Moreover, online grocery sales began to pick up and increased by 14% in the four week period, with two in 10 households shopping online – this represents 600 thousand new households shopping online compared to the same period last year with an additional 1.2m online grocery orders placed over the four weeks. 

Mike Watkins, Nielsen’s UK Head of Retailer and Business Insight, said: “With households making almost three extra shopping trips in the last four weeks, this small change in individual shopping behaviour has led to a seismic shift in overall shopping patterns. As well as increased store visits, consumers opted to shop online – many for the first time.

“However, unlike stores there is a finite capacity for online grocery shopping, due to warehouse capacity and available delivery slots, and this will have limited the growth of online sales.”