Fewer than half of UK adults would be comfortable returning to retail environments, even with social distancing measures in place, due to the coronavirus pandemic, exclusive research for Retail Week has found.

In a survey of 2,062 adults, just 41% of respondents said they would feel comfortable returning to retail stores on their local high streets, while the statistical picture for other shopping locations was even grimmer, according to research by Walnut Unlimited.

Just 37% of respondents said they would be comfortable visiting a retail park or out-of-town retail destination, while just 34% of respondents said they would feel comfortable visiting a reopened shopping centre.

The data will likely come as a blow to many ‘non-essential’ retailers that are looking to ramp up trial store reopenings over the next few weeks as the government begins to unwind some of the lockdown measures it put in place to limit the spread of the virus in March.

Walnut Unlimited research director Amy Nichols said the findings reinforced the importance for retailers to “demonstrate how they are taking steps to reassure shoppers that their spaces are safe, and to do this sensitively”.

The research also highlighted the extent to which consumer habits and behaviours have been polarised during the UK’s nine-week lockdown period.

When asked whether their shopping habits would return to normal as non-essential stores begin to reopen, shoppers were divided, with 38% strongly or slightly agreeing, compared to 39% who strongly or slightly disagreed.

The data found men were significantly more likely to feel comfortable returning to physical shopping environments rather than women.

Just under half of men said they would be comfortable returning to high street stores, compared to 38% of women. For retail parks, 40% of men said they would be comfortable, compared to 34% of women, while 38% of men would return to a shopping centre, compared to 28% of women.

The research also suggested that as lockdown restrictions are eased, many customers will look to continue shopping online for items they used to buy in stores. The data found 37% of respondents said they would shop digitally either much or a little more rather than physically, compared with just 7% who said they would shop at physical stores more.

Walnut Unlimited said “younger, more upmarket shoppers” were the most likely to continue predominantly purchasing goods via ecommerce, even after the pandemic ends.

Nichols said: “Lockdown has seen many shoppers transfer to buying many items online that would otherwise have been purchased in-store. This behaviour may not stick for everyone, but indications are that the shopping habits of younger shoppers have shifted more irreversibly online than before.”

Forty-one per cent of respondents said they would be less likely to venture outside to visit shops, pubs and restaurants generally, even as lockdown restrictions begin to be eased.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the government’s advice to older people to shield themselves from physical contact and the higher mortality rate of the virus in those over 70, older generations said they would continue to avoid stores as lockdown measures unwind.

The overwhelming majority of respondents said the thing they were most looking forward to as lockdowns eased was meeting up with friends and family.

Walnut Unlimited’s Nichols said: “Understanding the changing attitudes and behaviours [of customers] has never been more important – with behaviour change enforced on consumers this creates opportunities for brands which are able to adapt and meet these changing needs.

“We know that behavioural change isn’t always easy – humans can be creatures of habit, making long-term changes in behaviour harder to embed.”