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24 Dec 2020

How retailers have helped shoppers in 2020

Brighter moments from a tough year in retail

The retail sector was hit hard by the pandemic, but there have been plenty of examples of shops going out of their way to put customers first.

We've seen mass disruption to the retail sector in 2020, with stores shutting their doors as a result of lockdowns and some of them never reopening.

While our shopping experiences this year certainly haven't all been positive, here we look back at when retailers went the extra mile to help people through the crisis.

1. Extending returns policies

When the first lockdown was announced in March and non-essential shops had to close, it was clear that returning products wouldn't be quite as straightforward as it was before.

Anyone who bought an ill-fitting dress or faulty laptop in mid-March wouldn't be able to return it in person for far longer than the standard 14 days. And visiting the Post Office to send items back wouldn't have been an option for everyone.

Which? called for retailers to extend their returns policies during the lockdown, unless they were able to safely collect customers' items via couriers. Many stores, including Argos, Homebase and Zara, allowed customers who bought products in-store to return them up to 30 days after shops reopened - which ended up being several months later.

After initially insisting customers return unwanted items by post, retailers from Mike Ashley's Frasers Group joined other stores in changing their policies.

2. Volunteer shopping cards

For the millions of elderly and clinically vulnerable people who were asked to shield earlier in the year, shopping for food became difficult.

Unable to visit the supermarket in person, shielders had to either order online or rely on friends, family, neighbours or other volunteers to shop for them.

With online order slots increasingly difficult to secure, especially for those who hadn't bought groceries online before, relying on volunteers became the only option for many. And that presented a problem: how do you give someone else the money they need to shop for you?

Accessing cash wasn't always practical, and not everyone felt comfortable making a bank transfer. That's where volunteer voucher shopping cards came in. Some supermarkets created virtual vouchers for shielders to buy - online or over the phone - and give to volunteers.

When we compared these cards in May, only Asda's could be topped up online. For other supermarkets' cards you'd have to buy a new voucher when the first one ran out. But these volunteer vouchers still proved a lifeline for many people.

3. Sustainable packaging

The climate crisis took a backseat to the pandemic in the headlines for most of the year, but it's not going away. Experts say supermarkets create 800,000 tonnes of plastic in the UK annually - plastic that can cause huge damage to our ecosystems.

So we were pleased to see examples of grocery chains switching to more sustainable packaging. In January, Tesco announced it would remove plastic wrapping from branded and own-brand multipacks. Asda said it would cut plastic forks from its salads. Most supermarkets have now pledged to remove or greatly reduce the amount of plastic packaging they use.

Despite this, Which? still believes more could be done. Our research from September found that two thirds of branded grocery packaging is not fully recyclable.

4. Combatting loneliness

With Christmas lockdown relaxations curbed at the last minute, many people will be home alone for the holidays this year. This comes after what's been an already very lonely year for some.

To help fight loneliness, Asda has introduced 'happy to chat' badges for its delivery drivers, letting customers know they have time to talk while they're carrying out their deliveries. Make sure you follow all social distancing measures if you do decide to chat with your delivery driver.

5. Advertising independents

This isn't so much retailers helping shoppers as retailers helping other retailers. But it could help shoppers if it keeps their favourite stores in business.

Well-known chains such as Debenhams and Laura Ashley made headlines when they collapsed this year, but sadly many smaller independent retailers have also had to close down due to the pandemic.

In December, as Tier 3 restrictions meant many restaurants could only stay open for takeaway, Burger King used its Instagram account to promote local independent restaurants that might be struggling.

Which? survey winners

Every year, Which? surveys thousands of customers to find out which shops people prefer. Previously, we've ranked stores separately for online and high street shopping, but with COVID-19 changing the way many of us shopped, this year we took a holistic approach. We still compared like for like, ranking stores within categories like clothing and accessories, tech and home appliances.

You can find out which retailers came out on top on our best and worst shops review page.

We also revealed the best supermarket of 2020 earlier in the year. Waitrose came top in our annual comparison of the nine major UK grocery chains.