MoneyMay 13, 2020

Online shopping soared at level three. So what have we actually been buying?


Gaming consoles, exercise bikes, DVDs and paint – turns out what New Zealand is buying says a lot about what we’ve been doing in lockdown.

Last week, I finally bought a TV. Nothing fancy, just your stock standard 30-inch telly to replace my cheap tablet that was starting to splutter to the end of its life – its tiny processor clearly strained by the sheer volume of film and TV I’d been joyously spending the last few weeks catching up on. So when alert level four lifted and many retailers reopened for business, I instantly went online and got myself an upgrade. Soon enough, it became clear I wasn’t the only one whipping out my card for a bit of non-essential shopping.

With the start of alert level three at the end of last month, online stores have been inundated by a concentrated wave of pent-up consumer demand. As physical stores remained closed, virtual shopfronts had retailers warning of significant delays, unprecedented demand, and pleas for customers to “be patient” and “be kind”. Briscoe Group managing director Rod Duke told the Herald the surge in demand was “just like Christmas time” and that online sales were “better now than they will ever get”. Meanwhile, the boom also had a flow-on effect for courier companies dealing with backlogs of anywhere from five days to more than a week.

Naturally, it begs the question: what are people actually buying? What could possibly be inducing thousands of New Zealanders to turn out for online shopping in droves?

According to product comparison site PriceSpy, portable game consoles had the highest growth between April 28 and May 6 with clicks up 3,470% compared to this time last year. The most popular product across all categories was the Nintendo Switch, closely followed by Sony’s PS4 Pro, PS4 Slim, and Nintendo Switch Lite. Clearly, it’s a testament to how much more time we’re spending indoors, presumably playing Animal Crossing

With much of the population working and socialising remotely, products related to video calling and working from home also experienced a sharp spike. Year-on-year growth for webcams under level three surged 1,491%, particularly the Logitech HD Pro Webcam which was the 10th most clicked on product across the whole site. The Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones and Apple AirPods were also the second and third most popular products across all categories respectively.

Other high growth categories included Lego, sewing machines, bread makers, and stand mixers, revealing a population itching to keep busy at home. With gyms and hairdressers closed, exercise bikes (up 300%) and hair trimmers (up 220%) also experienced a surge in popularity.

The desire to keep entertained also comes through when we look at online retailer Mighty Ape’s most popular products between April 28 and May 6, during which it experienced a 160% year-on-year growth in sales. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker on DVD and Blu-ray topped the list after being released on May 1, followed by Lego Mini Figures and the Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing: New Horizons (see, I told you).

Other best-selling items include the Gorilla Smart LED TV, Jumanji the Next Level on Blu-ray and DVD (also released on May 1), Apple AirPods, the PS4 Slim bundle, Atkins Low Carb Breadmix (for lockdown’s health-conscious bakers), and V Blue energy drink (not for lockdown’s health-conscious bakers). Mighty Ape’s subscription service Primate, which offers unlimited free shipping and other benefits, also saw a spike in demand as customers looked to make the most of doing their shopping online.

For The Warehouse Group (TWG), which includes The Warehouse, Warehouse Stationery, Noel Leeming, and Torpedo 7, online sales represented 15.9% of total retail sales this quarter and had an increase of 74.8% on the same quarter last year. According to a spokesperson for TWG, it’s had “steady demand” for home appliances, grocery items, office products and technology. TVs have been among the group’s best-selling products (FYI, I bought my TV from The Warehouse) as well as laptops, gaming consoles and mobiles phones.

Kmart declined to share sales or volume data but noted that bedding, appliances, women’s clothing, sleepwear, and furniture were its most popular categories. 

Meanwhile, Mitre 10 simply stated that online demand since April 28 was “exponentially greater than the same period last year” as people caught up on outside jobs they would normally do through the autumn season. The most popular online purchases under level three have been paint and garden supplies, with exterior stain, potting mix and compost, paint and pest control topping the list.

On Thursday, New Zealand will move down to alert level two which means physical stores will once again be allowed to open. Couriers and retail workers will be breathing a sigh of relief, but it remains to be seen whether normality will resume. With businesses required to implement contact tracing and/or restricted entry for customers in order to safely reopen, New Zealand’s biggest online shopping boom may be far from over.

Keep going!