Understanding consumer demand is a core part of any company’s success. In any year, an ice-cream van will struggle if it stays at home when the sun is shining. And in 2020, people who went big on masks and hand disinfectant are still counting their cash. But the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic goes far beyond PPE and toilet paper. In this analysis, we use Searchmetrics Insights data to investigate the impact of coronavirus on the UK sports sector in 2020. How did lockdowns and exercise restrictions affect consumer demand? And who profited from the enforced shifts in behaviour?
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Searchmetrics Insights data
The data in this post (if not otherwise attributed) comes from Searchmetrics Insights, which uses search data to track demand on a sectoral basis.
- Data is based on online search activity on google.co.uk (United Kingdom)
- Data for categories e.g. “Boxing” is not based on the single keyword boxing, but on all searches with an intent that is relevant to the product category in question, e.g. boxing products
- Categories can be broken down into sub-categories e.g. “Bike Tools” is a sub-category within “Cycling”.
Spring 2020 was unprecedented in many ways – even growth
The restrictions on group activities and outdoor exercise introduced in March 2020 didn’t mean that people stopped doing sport. It did mean that they were forced to alter their behaviour, which created shifts in demand. Three sporting activities that saw some of the largest upticks were Badminton, Fitness and Boxing.
The chart shows the category growth trends into April 2020, with the relative change from 2020.
While these growth numbers might seem impressive, if we dig down into the more specific categories, we can see in more detail which products consumers were most interested in. Note the altered scale on the axis!.
Highlighting categories in this way also underlines the importance of precise data. An unexpected Olympic success may generate interest in a sport (readers may remember Rhona Martin’s heroics in 2002) but consumers don’t buy media hype. Consumers buy products. Insight into how interest translates into consumer demand can make the difference between profiting from an emerging trend and sitting on a warehouse full of unsold curling stones.
Not focused on sport? In your personal Searchmetrics Insights demo, our experts can show you how consumer demand is changing in your industry:
Premier League suspended so football is cancelled?
The first ever interruption to a Premier League season (the abandonment of the 1939-40 football season due to distractions on the European mainland was in the days of the old First Division) was announced on 13th March 2020. With the lower divisions of the English Football League also suspended, the nation was suddenly without its national game, with data from Google Trends showing perfectly how interest in the topic “football” declined, only to pick up again as the season restarted in mid-June.
However, believe it or not, there is more to football than the Premier League. While much Google activity around “football” may be driven by searches for keywords like football scores, fantasy football or football news, none of these have a search intent related to football products. Indeed, if we look at our Insights data for the categories “football clothing” and “football field equipment”, we see an increase in March/April, in the period when the Premier League was on hold.
There will no doubt be a large overlap between fans of football news and people who buy football shirts, but for a product strategy to be effective, it must distinguish between topical interest and purchasing intent.
Demand doesn’t disappear – it shifts
Even with a lockdown turning lives upside down, consumer interests don’t necessarily disappear. You don’t play cricket for 30 years and give it all up just because of a temporary hiatus. From a product perspective, this is reflected in a seasonal shift in demand. Although the year-on-year demand for cricket products remained fairly steady (around 95%) from 2019 to 2020, the graph below, showing how demand is distributed throughout the year, reveals a delay in the usual springtime growth.
In 2019, there is a clear increase from April to May, and again through the subsequent months. In 2020, the jump does come, but not until July – which was the month recreational cricket was able to restart. This is a marked shift in the seasonal demand – only of a couple of months from May to July but a couple of months can make a significant difference. Just try selling Christmas trees in February!
This chart also emphasizes importance of historical data, because you need to know what the baseline is. If you know what the underlying seasonal demand is, then you are better placed to interpret recent trends.
Searchmetrics Insights provides customers with historical growth data for the last three years:
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Sales track online demand in the bike business
Reacting to short-term seasonal shifts is one thing, but has the pandemic engendered any new trends or provided the catalyst for growth in sectors that were already starting to gain traction? One area of note is the cycling economy, which saw sales grow by 60% year-on-year for the period April to September 2020, according to a Bicycle Association report.
If we look at our Insights data for 2020, we see a similar trend, with year-on-year growth for April to September at 58%, with the highest increase found in May and June, again in line with the Q2 surge described by the Bicycle Association. This data underlines the close relationship between demand tracked by online search and real-world sales.
Furthermore, if we look at the 2020 growth data alongside the equivalent figures for 2019, then we can see the impact of the coronavirus pandemic even more clearly. Here, an already-growing industry received a real boost, so it’s little surprise many retailers were caught off-guard and consumers faced reported stock shortages.
While it won’t always be possible for a business to react immediately to changing demand – particularly in the midst of a global pandemic – the quicker you spot a trend, the stronger your advantage is likely to be. Furthermore, an increase in bike ownership also creates new potential buyers for associated products. The following chart shows the year-on-year growth trends for cycling accessories, bike tools and protective cycling gear.
Looking closely at the annual growth rates helps pinpoint demand and tie it to specific product categories. For example, we can see that the growth for protective gear remains comparatively modest, even in the boom months of May and June. Conversely, the demand for bike tools was sustained at over 30% year-on-year growth even into September. At a time when bicycle supply is struggling to meet demand, astute use of the data can reveal opportunities in related categories.
Insights – understanding demand and revealing potential
This quick review of demand in the UK sports sector during 2020 has revealed the following insights:
- which categories benefited most from the March-April lockdown
- the vital distinction between topical interest and product demand
- that demand does not always disappear, but may be postponed to later in the year
- the importance of a data baseline when interpreting recent trends
- how tracking growth in connected categories can expose areas of high potential.
And that only scratches the surface. The more granular your analysis, the better you can adapt your sales strategy. Interest in bikes has grown, but how do the trends look for e-bikes, mountain bikes or city bikes? Can we make the same observations in other European countries? Which websites have profited most from increased demand? This article can’t go into all these details, but we have hopefully demonstrated some of the value of insights drawn from search data, and the potential that exists for their application in guiding business decisions.
If you have any questions about the data presented in this post, or about Searchmetrics Insights in general, please get in touch. We’re happy to help.