Coronavirus: Easter egg shoppers go online

By Mary-Ann Russon
Business reporter, BBC News

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Image source, Hotel Chocolat

Upmarket chocolate retailer Hotel Chocolat closed all its UK stores three weeks ago. The firm was forced to "turn on a sixpence" reorganising the warehouse to make it safe for staff. But it has paid off.

"As it turns out, we've sold more Easter eggs than last year," says boss Angus Thirlwell.

Online sales of Easter eggs are surging as UK consumers turn to the internet during the coronavirus lockdown.

Thorntons too said it had seen "a significant increase in online orders" since the lockdown started.

"Demand is four times higher than average - and we have received approximately one million visitors to our site this week," they added.

Easter is big business in Britain. In 2019, consumers spent £1.1bn on buying items to celebrate the festival, according to research firm Mintel, with £206m of that spent on Easter eggs alone.

But with the coronavirus lockdown preventing families and friends from meeting up to celebrate and Easter egg hunt activities cancelled, the usual opportunities for buying and sharing the traditional treats are limited.

Image source, Thorntons
Image caption,
Thorntons opens its website for just two hours each days to accept new customer orders

Facing the surge in online traffic, Thorntons has decided to open its website at 09:00 each day for just one or two hours for customer orders, before closing it again.

Hotel Chocolat is taking a different approach. Rather than have its staff waste time searching for products in the warehouse to fulfil orders, the chocolate maker has reduced the range of products that people can purchase online.

Instead, the retailer has created themed bundles and pre-packs the items into boxes the moment they come off the production line.

"We've created 30 new products from scratch," said Mr Thirlwell, adding that customers had been much less demanding about their packages during the lockdown than they would typically be.

Discounting in supermarkets

In contrast, aisles fully stocked with Easter eggs have been widely discounted in supermarkets across the UK in the last two weeks, which is unusual for the run-up to the Easter holiday weekend.

In Tesco, almost all branded Easter eggs are selling on two-for-one deals, while Sainsbury's lifted its three-item limit per customer on Easter eggs several days before it eased restrictions on other food products.

Image caption,
Supermarkets have been heavily discounting Easter eggs in stores

The BBC asked Tesco and Sainsbury's about their Easter egg sales, but the supermarkets declined to comment.

Chocolate manufacturer Kinnerton Confectionery makes many of the branded Easter eggs sold in these supermarkets, and it too has seen demand move online.

"With travel restrictions extending over Easter, consumers have turned to order Easter eggs online for home delivery to their loved ones," Julia Catton, marketing and innovation director at Zertus UK, the parent company for Kinnerton Confectionery and several other chocolate brands, told the BBC.

"Some of our major customers have increased their online range to help customers, but this has been further hampered by limitation of home delivery slots in many retailers."

Kinnerton itself set up a new online shop to allow customers of its Nomo vegan and "free-from" chocolate range to make direct orders if they couldn't get the products from supermarkets.

However, according to US market research firm IRI, overall Easter confectionery sales for the week ending 28 March were down 17% year-on-year.

Ms Catton added: "The next few days will be important for Easter egg sales to see if demand improves."

Other analysts also feel that there will be a significant impact on Easter spending, and that not everyone is buying Easter eggs.

Independent retail expert Kate Hardcastle says consumers will have to decide between the must-haves and nice-to-haves: "It's just not front-of-mind focus for anyone, and it's also an extra cost for a lot of families they just can't afford."

Image source, Lisa Strachan

Mintel is running a weekly survey tracking the impacts of coronavirus on consumer spending in the UK. It says that in the last week, almost a quarter of British consumers increased the shopping they are doing online.

But in the last seven days, it also found that 46% of consumers have cut back on non-essential spending.

Despite this, Hotel Chocolat's Angus Thirlwell says that his business is seeing consumer behaviour it's never seen before in its 27-year-history.

"There's a lot of people using online food shopping for the first time. People are asking for help in making orders on the online chat and calling customer service," he said.

Hotel Chocolat is also seeing customer messages that show a shift in consumer habits, says Mr Thirlwell: "We're seeing messages like, 'Here's something to keep your strength up', or 'Thinking of you', sent to key workers, and families saying 'Here's some chocolate so we can FaceTime eating chocolate together'.

"Chocolate does play an important part in keeping morale up."

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