How Covid is Changing Consumers' Drinking Habits

November 04, 2020

With so many people feeling lonely and anxious right now, it’s no surprise that 46% of those who have changed their alcohol consumption are drinking more since lockdown. On the other hand, 28% actually claim to be drinking less.

But it’s the context surrounding these numbers that should matter most to alcohol brands. 

Since the beginning of the year, Streetbees has been tracking the impact of the pandemic on people’s drinking habits, and how their choices are evolving. The Impact Tracker uses detailed conversations and in-the-moment logs to capture real-life experiences throughout the pandemic. So far, 80,000 bees (users) have contributed to the background survey, with over 20,000 alcohol occasions already documented.

Here, we will highlight 5 key takeaways — including direct quotes from our bees — touching on the nuances that come from conversational research.

1. Covid is changing WHERE people drink.

People have been spending more time at home this year than during any other period in recent history. Much of this time has been involuntary. It’s not surprising, then, that many have been doing a lot more of their drinking at home as well.

In the past week, only 32% of people had an alcoholic drink outside their home. 

When they do go out, though, they prefer to stay outdoors (53%), where the fresh air makes them feel safer. You may have noticed that alfresco dining — along with alfresco drinking — has been the thing this year. 

And if you live in a place where it’s allowed, you’ve probably also seen people drinking in the park, or setting up chairs by the pavement to share a drink with the neighbors. In many places, people were allowed to meet friends and family outdoors before they were allowed to visit their homes. 

“I gladly drink a cold beer in the afternoon when it is hot and I am in the garden. Normally, I would be at work every day and I would not have the opportunity to relax like this while drinking a beer!” Female, 41, France

2. It’s changing WHAT they drink.

16% of users report buying more beer during the pandemic. In fact, for some users, beer has practically become a staple of their relaxation routines, alongside tea and coffee. 

Beer is followed by red wine, with 7% reporting buying more. Spirits, however, have seen a decrease in sales. Some of this is driven by cost, as 53% of people report spending less since the pandemic began.

For many, though, drinking at home — without the pressures and judgments of a social environment — has freed them up to experiment with new types of drinks. Without a new setting to provide the stimulation — such as a pub, concert, or sporting event — the drinks themselves become the novelty. 

“…Since I am drinking a lot more at home we’ve been trying different brands and buying whatever is on offer, so I bought this Greenalls as the flavor ‘Wild Berry’ sounded a bit different and is a brand I’d not tried before!” Female, 24, UK  

3. It’s changing WHY they drink.

COVID has led to more changes in social behavior, in a shorter amount of time, than most any other event in modern times. And so the role of alcohol, which many people consider a kind of “social lubricant,” has changed as well.  

Before the pandemic, lots of people — especially younger people — treated alcohol as an aid to high-energy social experiences, from dance parties to summer festivals, sporting events to backyard barbecues. COVID brought an end, at least temporarily, to most of those options. 

Now more people are using alcohol just as a way to relax. When asked “What’s the occasion?”, 37% of all bees described their drinking moment as “relaxing,” followed by “nothing in particular” and “drinking with a meal.”

Boredom drinking has become more common, though this isn’t something most brands would likely want to include in their messaging.

“…I have occasionally been having a drink here and there at night to relax. Certain nights I have been getting a bit antsy from being stuck inside and a cocktail or a shot or a glass of wine tends to relax me and loosen me up a little bit!” Female, 34, US

4. It’s changing WHO is drinking more.

People are stressed out about the pandemic. They’re worried about getting sick. They’re worried about finances. 

Some see alcohol as a way to alleviate that stress. Europeans, for instance, commonly cite mental well-being as their rationale for drinking more during lockdown. 

Others, though, have used lockdown as an opportunity to look after their bodies by drinking less, such as the many Chinese and Indian respondents who claim they’re abstaining for reasons of physical health.

Interestingly, age is another fairly strong predictor of which camp a person falls into. If you’re between the ages of 35 and 44, you’re much more likely to be part of that 46% of people who claim to be drinking more. If you’re between 18 and 25, on the other hand, you’re more likely to be in the 28% who are drinking less.

“Due to the pandemic we are focusing on a healthy lifestyle and organic food habits, so I have reduced my consumption of alcohol. After the start of lockdown we were not getting alcohol at all as all the shops were closed. But once the shops started to open, we had less to spend . . . I have personally not stopped drinking alcohol but I have reduced it drastically.” Male, 26, India

5. It’s changing HOW they get their drinks.

With consumers drinking much more at home — and many trying to avoid crowded shops — it only makes sense that they’re doing more of their alcohol shopping online.

Home delivery of alcohol is surging in popularity — whether it’s through direct-to-consumer channels such as Drizly and Master of Malt, or through online grocery channels such as Ocado. 

The numbers do vary some depending on the market. Chinese consumers are the most likely to have their alcohol delivered, with 15% of all purchases occurring online.

In other markets, some consumers find the variety of drinks to be lacking, preferring liquor stores and large supermarkets for their wider selections. 

Still, online shopping and home delivery will only grow in the future, even once the pandemic has passed. 55% of people plan to continue ordering the same amount of their drinks online, lockdown restrictions or not.

Started ordering cask ales direct from the brewery. Fine Ales do 5L mini-casks and only £5 delivery for two casks. I’d much rather be at the pub but this is a decent alternative as that’s still some way off for me due to shielding . . .” Male, 51, UK

It’s important to note that many of these changes, as well as others observed in the study, were already underway before COVID struck. The virus simply created a high-pressure environment that enhanced and accelerated them.

Pre-pandemic, younger adults were already drinking less than their elders. In Europe, more and more young people were opting for low- and no-alcohol drinks. In the U.S., many were choosing cannabis over alcohol, at least in states where the recreational use of cannabis has been legalized. 

Pre-pandemic, people were gradually taking their beverage shopping online along with their grocery shopping. But lockdown restrictions, shop closures and the fear of catching the virus made home delivery all but a necessity.

One day the pandemic will end. And when that day comes, there will likely be a surge of enthusiasm for the kind of social contact and high-energy experiences we’ve been denied for so long. Yet the role alcohol plays in our lives has evolved due to COVID. Some of the changes are here to stay.

To learn more about how Covid-19 is impacting alcohol consumption, download our free report.