One year on

A look back at the travel, automotive, retail, alcohol, personal finance and beauty sectors under a COVID microscope. What we thought then, to what we know now.

How has COVID affected both consumers and marketers across product sectors?

COVID has undoubtedly disrupted the lives of ordinary consumers and the processes and profitability of businesses more than any other factor in living memory.

Throughout 2019, we at UNLIMITED issued a series of category-focused trend reviews assessing how sectors currently stood and how we expected them to evolve over the coming few years.

While it is tempting to assume that “nothing will be the same again” because of the pandemic, the truth, of course, is more nuanced.  Some of the trends we were seeing will have been stopped in their tracks by lockdown; others will have been maintained or even accelerated; and, of course, COVID has also driven the creation of new attitudes and behaviours, some of which will turn out to be temporary phenomena, while others may persist.

With that in mind, we thought it was the perfect time to revisit our thoughts from last year to see how our assessments look in the current reality. We’d also invite you to download and review our trend reviews from last year and come back to us with your thoughts or questions about how things may have changed for your sector or brand.


What we said last year: Our report “Towards an era of open travel” explored the appetite that travellers have for a seamless, personalised and immersive travel experience, which can only be delivered to them if they can be persuaded to open up their personal data to travel providers. Download our Open Travel report to find out more here.

Travel under COVID: COVID shut down the travel industry totally across its busiest period. The way that travellers pounced on the temporary easing of restrictions to jet away, risking potential sanctions and the need to quarantine demonstrated the strength of the underlying desire for foreign travel.

Travel post-COVID: While much of what has been written about the future of the travel is doom-laden, the truth is surely that travel will rebound as soon as restrictions are lifted. However, it may well look and feel different to the travel experience we are used to – vaccination passports, low capacity (and therefore higher price) flights may become the norm, representing a new norm of safety and hygiene first. However, the underlying demands that we talked about pre-COVID are so entrenched that they will resurface as quickly as they are able to.


What we said last year: Our report “The future of vehicle ownership” highlighted a fast-evolving demand away from car ownership towards access and a more critical shopper that we felt would fundamentally change the way that consumers access mobility solutions. Download our Future of Vehicle Ownership report to find out more here.

Automotive under COVID: Data from the likes of TfL, Google and CityMapper provided stark visual evidence of what we all knew to be true: under lockdown all movement stopped from the daily commute to the longer trips. Car buying too was virtually stopped in its tracks.

Automotive post-COVID: Movement patterns may be quite different in the years to come, if, as expected, WFH or a hybrid version of it becomes permanent for many and if the relocation to the quieter, more hygienic and greener suburbs that we are currently seeing, persists. That aside, it may well be that COIVD proves to be something of a turning point, both for the much anticipated adoption of both electric and autonomous vehicles, but more significantly for a mindset shift away from ownership towards access solutions.


What we said last year: Last year we highlighted how E-commerce, city-centre regeneration and cultural trends were transforming the way our town centres look and feel. Then, we felt that “The truth is that the “High Street” is not dying, merely continuing to evolve, as it always has. As is generally the case with evolutions, the future will belong to the fittest – those best able to adapt to the changing needs of the customer”. Download our High Street of the Future report to find out more here.

Retail under COVID: COVID has had a massively polarising effect on retailers. Those who were dependent on footfall and were unable to pivot quickly into online delivery models have suffered badly, while others, particularly in the grocery sector have thrived, albeit while having to face significant logistical challenges around supply chains, distribution, staffing and order fulfilment.

Retail post-COVID: COVID has brought even the most reluctant of consumers into the digital shopping era. However, it has also demonstrated the demand for retail as a leisure pursuit in its own right, over and above mere transacting. Post-pandemic retail will, of course, include its new set of social distancing practices for some time to come, potentially forever, but will also enjoy a new energy as consumers relish the prospect of shopping once more and look to retailers to satisfy their demand for the kinds of enjoyable, novel and innovative experiences that are simply not possible in the digital version.


What we said last year: With the consequences of alcohol production and (over)consumption attracting negative headlines and the attention of legislators around the world, the industry was under pressure to become more responsible, both socially and environmentally. Attitudes and behaviours related to leisure, socialising, relaxation and health were in flux with major implications for how, what and where we consumed alcohol. We coined the term TeePartial to characterise how tomorrow’s alcohol consumers will be drinking. Download our TeePartial report to find out more here.

Alcohol under COVID: To a large degree, we drunk our way through lockdown, though sales of low/no alcohol offerings also rose during this period, suggesting that the long-term movement away from alcohol seen amongst the young is likely to persist.

Alcohol post-COVID: While there Is likely to be a collective letting down of the hair as we raise a glass in celebration to the end of all this, we fully expect the shift towards lower alcohol to continue, and Indeed Intensify. TeePartial drinkers will not be satisfied with today’s choices, which they regard as outmoded, overly traditional and unhealthy. Their changing habits and preferences invite innovation from manufacturers and venues in terms of both what drinks are offered but also how and where they are consumed.

Personal finance & savings

What we said last year: For a whole host of reasons, we had seen society turning away from savings and towards borrowing over the past couple of decades. These included the rise of consumerism, the widening availability of credit, loss of trust in banks and other financial institutions, short- and longer-term political and economic uncertainty, the continuing rise in house prices, the introduction of student loans, austerity and wage stagnation and historically low interest rates, among others. The net result of these factors was an unprecedented shift in mindset. Download our Building a New Culture of Savings report to find out more here.

Personal finance & savings under COVID: UK’s GDP plunged nearly 20% between April and June –  the largest recession since current records began and almost one-third of jobs (9.6 million) were furloughed at some point, with young people most affected. At the same time, those continuing to work were able to save because their living costs were so much lower – we saw a 21% increase in savings nationally over this period.

Personal finance & savings post-COVID: Much will depend on the size and shape of the economic recession and/or recovery that we see post-pandemic. Economic forecasters from the OECD to Moody’s are unclear about when we’ll get back to pre-COVID levels of growth, but it seems likely that we are in for prolonged period of personal and societal challenge. In this climate it Is very possible that all of the gains we saw in personal savings may turn out to be very temporary as salary cuts and/or layoffs force large numbers to dig into the savings that they’d accrued during the enforced frugality of lockdown.


What we said last year: Environmental and economic pressures and changing demands from consumers were forcing the beauty industry to give itself a makeover. An emphasis on body positivity and of total fluidity of gender, sexuality and identity empowered consumers to pursue whatever look they wanted, and suppliers were being pressurised to provide products that were sustainable, ethical and catered to diverse users. Download our Beauty Glow Up report to find out more here

Beauty under COVID: Beauty took something of a back seat under lockdown as other priorities came to the forefront. Casual and comfortable clothing and makeup looks became the order of the day as we WFH’ed and Zoomed rather than commuted and met in person.

Beauty post-COVID: As life priorities continue to flex, we are seeing a long-term shift. Body positivity is being replaced with a new, even more open perspective. The prevailing view now is increasingly better captured by the term body neutrality – a philosophy that you should focus on what your body can do for you rather than what it looks like. 

One Year On: Looking ahead

By their very nature trends are continually in flux. As the world around us changes so too do our needs as consumers, the products that marketers serve up to meet those needs and the comms strategies via which they encourage the adoption of those products.  Never has the world around us felt more uncertain or less predictable. Making trends forecasts is fraught enough at the best of times, and these are certainly not the best of times. Nevertheless, we’ll continue to monitor, to track, to brainstorm as we seek to offer our clients a view of the way ahead. Watch this space!

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at UNLIMITED.