Demand for will-writing services rose by 69% and divorce inquiries soared by 300% as the coronavirus lockdown led many to consider their mortality and their relationships, according to the Co-op.
The mutual said it had shifted its legal services online during the pandemic when it had not been possible to meet clients face to face and that this had proved a popular move.
“As Covid-19 took hold, people took their mortality more seriously than they previously had,” said Shirine Khoury-Haq, the firm’s chief financial officer. She said clients were seeking straightforward wills rather than more complex estate planning.
As for the surge in demand for divorce advice, Khoury-Haq said the incentive was obvious: “If you didn’t like your spouse that much and got out of the house to avoid them, that’s something you could not do in lockdown.”
Strong demand for legal work, funerals and the switch towards shopping for groceries locally all helped the mutual deliver a 7.6% rise in revenues to £5.8bn, while profits climbed 35% to £27m.
That came despite a £54m rise in costs, £33m of which was offset by government support, including the business rates holiday and furlough payments.
With death rates higher than normal levels during the spring, funeral bookings rose 22% to 59,000, boosting underlying operating profits for the division by 70% as many chose to attend via livestream services given limits on attendance under lockdown rules.
Meanwhile, sales rose 5.2% to £3.9bn at the group’s food business, leading to a 46% rise in profits to £175m. That came before additional costs including protective equipment and extra staff to cover for those forced to isolate. The group took on 7,000 temporary staff at the peak of the pandemic as it attracted 1.7m new shoppers, while each visitor popped twice as much in their basket.
Steve Murrells, the chief executive, said regional lockdowns and ongoing caution about the virus meant the the food business continued to benefit from a shift towards local shopping. He said the festive season was likely to be different from previous years, but might still work out well for the Co-op.
“Clearly, people won’t be out partying and won’t be able to have groups larger than six in their house. What that could mean is eating in, treating yourself and watching great TV. Snacking will probably be very prevalent. People will be going out less, so we have got to bring great products to their door.”
About 2,200 of the extra staff taken on remain in the business, including 1,200 who have been made permanent. The group is also aiming to move all frontline store and funeral staff on to the independently verified living wage by April.
Murrells said he hoped there would be more new jobs as the company restarts its expansion plans after lockdown with the aim of opening 50 more stores this year.
The company is also expanding its online services after grocery sales booked via the internet soared fourfold during the half-year to £21m. Murrells said the Co-op was now serving 100 towns online – through its own delivery service as well as partners including Deliveroo – and was aiming for £60m of online grocery sales for the full year.