One in 10 Britons has signed up to a subscription service during lockdown, with companies offering regular deliveries of food and drink reporting a huge spike in the customer numbers.
Companies offering gin, cheese and coffee subscriptions have all reported big increases in customer numbers, as consumers unable to get supermarket delivery slots or go out to eat and drink searched for alternatives, or simply looked for treats.
Field & Flower, which delivers meat and fish boxes nationwide, said in one week subscriptions leapt by 1,665%, while Mindful Chef, which sends out recipe boxes, reported a 452% spike in new customers.
Gin subscription service Craft Gin Club said it had signed up 30,000 new members to its monthly boxes, bringing its membership to 90,000. The firm charges £40 for each box, which includes a full-size bottle of gin and mixers.
Subscription firms have been growing in recent years, with customers able to sign up for regular deliveries of everything from razors to children’s art supplies.
Royal Mail, which is just one of the delivery firms used by companies, said its research showed 15% of adults had ordered a paid subscription box online since lockdown began.
A report for Royal Mail last year showed these services were worth £583m in 2017, and forecast this would double to more than £1bn by 2022. About four-fifths of the market was food and drink.
The Covid-19 crisis looks to have accelerated this growth. Field & Flower said it would normally take three months to add the number of new subscriptions it had added in a single week at the peak of activity on its website.
During the initial scramble for services, as the UK went into lockdown and panic-buying spread to supermarket delivery slots, some companies were forced to close their doors to new subscribers or reduce their offer.
Abel & Cole and Riverford, two of the best-known food box delivery firms, stopped taking on new customers and restricted choice for those who were already with them.
James Mansfield, a co-founder of Field & Flower, said it had been able to take new orders throughout, but had needed to cap the number of deliveries on some days.
He said the new customers were “typically supermarket shoppers who decided to shop online for groceries, often for the first time”.
He added: “We have seen a significant increase in people cooking and posting their Field & Flower lunch and dinners on social media showing that our customers have taken to home cooking in replacement of visiting restaurants during lockdown.”
Tim Lee, the chief executive of Mindful Chef, said it had also attracted custom from people who had never shopped online for food before.
He said that as demand soared the company was able to quickly scale up because it does not rely on automation. “We cut a couple of our recipes, so instead of 16 a week we did 14, but otherwise we carried on. We even introduced a 24-hour lead time carebox for people who wanted to send one to their loved ones.”
Like many shoppers, the company was affected by the shortage of tinned tomatoes in the early days, but was able to make substitutions.
For James Colbourne, subscriptions have gone from being a tiny part of his Cricklewood Coffee business to a six-day-a-week job.
Until March he ran a coffee stand at the local station and made most of his money through takeaway sales. “It had taken three years to build up the business – I had regular customers and a long queue every morning, and then I had to shut down,” he said.
He roasted his own coffee and offered bags of this for sale too. “I was selling three or four bags a day on the van.” He also had 10 to 15 subscribers each month; now he has 200 and the 1.5kg roaster he was using has had to be retired and a new larger one bought to keep up. Customers can get a delivery every fortnight or month.
It has been hard work. “For four of five weeks the local post office was closed so I was driving round trying to find one where the queue wasn’t too long.”
He hopes that the switch to subscriptions will stick now that some of the other options for customers are returning. “I don’t really miss the 4.30am start,” he said.
At Mindful Chef, a survey of 10,000 customers found that 70% were planning to continue subscribing after lockdown.
Field & Flower’s Mansfield said he had been encouraged by the large percentage new customers who had continued to order each month. “There is recognition that we were able to support people during lockdown and that seems to be translating into loyalty through future custom,” he added.