WHEN coronavirus hit the UK in March, it disrupted our food shopping habits. Shock! Supermarkets could not be be relied upon to feed us. However much the finger was pointed at ordinary citizens for "stockpiling", blame didn’t stick convincingly. The multiples’ “just in time, just enough” system had almost collapsed. To this day they’re still struggling to supply us with flour.

I’ve never met a soul who found supermarket shopping joyous. The prevalent view was that it was dull, predictable, anonymous, but it got the job done. Pos-covid, shopping with the multiples feels stressful, weird, even frightening. That’s why people are making fewer supermarket shopping trips. They have become an ordeal.

And here, in a welcome reversal of fortunes, small shops are coming up trumps, as the recent poll of retail experts conducted by the Grocer Magazine shows. When asked the question “Which sector stands to benefit most from changing shopper behaviour?”, convenience shops came romping through at 45.7% with supermarkets and discounters (Aldi, Lidl) trailing behind on 38.4% and 15.9% respectively.

This is a massive reversal in fortunes. Since the 1980s, small food shops have struggled just to stay in business alongside supermarkets, let alone increase their sales.

Drill down into that "convenience" shopping category, and a distinctly promising pattern emerges. New figures from Barclaycard show that "specialist" food and drink stores – that's greengrocers, convenience stores, butchers, fishmongers, bakeries, whole food shops, and off-licences – soared almost 40% in April, despite overall consumer spending tanking by 36.5% as a result of social distancing and lockdown.

The research found that over half (57%) of us now value these traditional outlets more because of the pandemic. What’s more, we intend to spend more with these shops when restrictions are lifted, including at butchers (27%), and farmers’ markets (23%).

So, a small silver lining to covid-19: small food outlets are no longer a residual shopping category. On the contrary, they have become essential to their local communities, a flash of hope on depressed high streets. How come? Many people have never got over the initial shock of being unable to set up a supermarket home delivery slot, and our large food retailers have lost customer loyalty as a result. Supermarkets are still struggling to keep up with the demand. Meanwhile small food concerns have set up delivery services and gained customers who didn’t use them or even know they existed before.

This new customer base for independent food outlets appreciates the more personal service and less frantic shopping experience they offer. Those who do their shopping in person have appreciated the micro-conversations. “How are you today?” “Is your son feeling better? Little human interactions like this do so much to lift our spirits. For those who live alone, local shops might be the only opportunity to speak to a real human being. And that matters so much for our mental health. For many elderly people who dread the very thought of online ordering, the ability to place an order by phone has been a huge relief.

Local food businesses have certainly tapped into the sense of community we have craved amid the anxiety of the pandemic. But a cynic would say that once we get back to normal, when life gets busier, most people will revert to supermarket-centric shopping. Will they? The psychological impact of months of lockdown may leave us less inclined to spend time in busy enclosed spaces like shopping malls and supermarkets. I’ve heard many people saying that they feel safer and happier visiting local shops than the supermarket. Retail analyst James Child believes that that more of us may even be willing to pay a little more to support local stores. “I believe this trend will continue in a post-Covid-19 UK.”

Ultimately, when security concerns wane, it won’t be just the shopping experience that matters. Our satisfaction with the food on sale will be pivotal. Big supermarkets typically stock around 30,000 different lines, but like a subscription to junk TV, it’s a quantitative not a qualitative choice. By the time we finally emerge from lockdown, using small local food shops may be a shopping habit that many more of us choose to sustain. Once people have had a taste of what independents can offer it tends to leave them hungry for more.