When South Africa went into hard lockdown on 27 March 2020, citizens suddenly found their daily habits and the way they used their homes drastically impacted. Almost overnight, the majority of South African homes became multi-purpose sites where work, school, fitness, entertainment, and many other daily activities would all need to take place under the same roof.
One key result is that the pandemic has fast-tracked South Africa into the online shopping space.
The initial lockdown at Alert Level 5 saw all stores other than supermarkets and pharmacies forced to close until the end of April. This was followed by a cautious reopening of certain businesses with strict precautions in place, and an even slower return to ‘business as usual’ for most retailers. As brick-and-mortar shopping opportunities remained limited for much of 2020, home-bound consumers took advantage of e-commerce channels, which were permitted to resume sales from May 1st (with the exception of alcohol and tobacco products).
A November 2020 survey conducted by McKinsey & Company revealed that about 79 percent of South Africans had tried a new shopping behaviour, such as first-time online shopping, or click-and-collect buying, with most intending to continue the habit beyond the pandemic.
Online furniture shopping has been no exception. While furniture buying has traditionally had a strong ‘touch and feel’ aspect, the closure of furniture stores and showrooms during lockdown resulted in furniture retailers experiencing a significant uptick in website visits and online orders.
Cielo, one of South Africa’s leading online furniture retailers, saw an increase of over 70 percent in online orders from May to December 2021, compared to the same period pre-pandemic. “We had to adapt quickly, but we were ready for it,” says Andrew Jute, Brand and Product Manager at Cielo. “We’ve invested a lot of time and resource into making sure that the online furniture shopping experience is as smooth and predictable as possible for customers, especially since many people were trying it for the first time.”
Along with the rise in online shopping, Cielo shares further insights on some of the specific home furniture buying trends that have emerged during the pandemic.
Home Office Furniture
The shift to working from home has been one of the biggest permanent changes effected by the pandemic. Globally, the return to on-site office work has been occurring at a glacial pace, and a report released in early 2022 by GlobalData suggests that 25% of all consumers will continue to work from home indefinitely.
According to Cielo, while many individuals initially worked from their dining room tables and couches, there was soon a shift to investing in more permanent home office furniture. “Many shoppers were looking for furniture that would easily blend in with the home environment, and not remind them too much of being at the office,” reports Jute.
Versatile, multi-purpose Furniture
With the home space being used by more family members for a wider variety of activities, more consumers started seeking out versatile furniture pieces that could be used for more than one purpose.
For example, with many dining rooms and kitchen counters doubling up as home workspaces, Cielo reports that many customers were looking for more comfortable dining chairs and bar stools that could also function as makeshift office chairs.
Home Dining and Entertaining
With sit-down restaurant dining out of the picture for months, many people began investing more in their home dining rooms and kitchen nooks, as ordering in and home cooking became the go-to.
The trend of hosting more dinner parties, family gatherings and braais at home instead of eating out seems set to continue, particularly as 61 percent of consumers report they are cutting back on spending to manage stretched budgets.
With families relying much more on home entertainment, consumers have been spending more on relaxed home seating. According to Cielo, beanbags, couches and other soft seating saw increased sales, particularly catering to families with kids and teenagers spending more of their social lives and entertainment hours watching TV or playing video games.
Unable to go to movie theatres and other entertainment venues, many South Africans opted to divert their spending to home cinemas, fast-tracking an already popular trend. Instead of spending on famously overpriced movie tickets and snacks, consumers are not only jumping on online streaming platforms, but investing in furniture that comes close to recreating the cinema experience, from big screen TV’s, to Prestige-style cinema recliners complete with cup-holders and snack consoles.
While storage items have always been popular among consumers, Cielo reports that the move to remote work and e-learning has generated a huge increase in demand for any and all types of storage furniture, from bookshelves and wall units, to storage beds, console tables and ottomans (also reinforcing the demand for multi-purpose items).
Investing in Outdoor Living
As pandemic restrictions closed off national and international travel routes, holiday destinations, and even local beaches and recreational facilities, South Africans tried to make the best of ‘staycations’ by investing in enhancing their own outdoor spaces.
Cielo reports a marked increase in sales of garden and patio furniture, especially items like pool loungers and hanging chairs. With more flexible home working hours, it’s likely that many people are choosing to maximise time on the patio or by the pool during the day, and catch up on work at night or early in the morning.
While many of these trends were certainly accelerated by the pandemic, Covid is not the only driving force at play. Many experts point to the growth of the ‘stay-at-home’ economy, driven by global trends towards remote work and schooling, e-learning, and online entertainment.
“It’s clear that people have been living more of their lives online and from home for some time now,” says Jute. “But there’s no doubt that the pandemic has pushed many of these trends and behaviours into the mainstream.”
According to Cielo, most of the consumer habits and shopping trends spurred by the pandemic are continuing even with most restrictions now lifted. It seems clear that South Africans have left any qualms about online shopping—and buying furniture online in particular—behind them.