The UK domestic cleaning industry market has grown at an impressive pace in recent years with a 21% increase in turnover between 2013 and 2020. Structural and secular trends have driven strong growth. However, the cleaning sector, along with the rest of the UK economy is facing a number of challenges from the impact of COVID-19, Brexit and a likely economic recession.
In the first part of this article, we examine the factors driving recent growth in the sector. In the second part, we examine the impact of COVID-19 on demand for home cleaning services. Finally, we explore the outlook for the sector and consider the potential impact of COVID-19, Brexit and an economic recession on domestic cleaning in the UK.
1) Growth in the UK house cleaning market
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry as a whole was experiencing steady growth in turnover and the number of new workers and companies. Between 2015 and 2018, the UK cleaning industry’s workforce grew by 5%. Nearly 50% of those employees work in Cleaning Activities, a sub-sector that includes domestic and commercial cleaners. Some contributing factors to this growth will be examined later in this blog post.
The most recent statistics from ONS show us that the Cleaning Activities sub-sector has recently suffered from a significant drop in its monthly turnover. In April 2020, the sub-sector’s turnover was £617 million, a drastic drop from the £884 million generated in January.
Before we consider the likely long term impacts of COVID-19, it will be useful to explore some of the trends that drove the growth the industry experienced prior to the pandemic.
Growth in disposable income
Over the past few years, the average UK household has experienced an increase in its disposable income. In 2018, average disposable income rose by 3.5% and in 2019 this figure increased by a further 1.4%.
As can be expected, this increase in disposable income allowed families to spend more. According to the ONS, between 2012 and 2019 the average household’s weekly spend rose by 9.1% (after accounting for inflation). This increase was split across a number of different categories, including Household Goods and Services.
With external services such as domestic cleaning and gardening becoming more accessible, it is unsurprising that these industries experienced growth during this period. What was once seen as more luxurious was now available to a wider audience.
Increasing number of women in the workforce
One factor that may have contributed to both the rise in disposable income and the demand for domestic cleaners is the continually rising employment rate for women aged 25-64. Although this figure might be beginning to plateau, it is still consistently rising annually and currently rests just below 73%.
With both partners at work, families will bring in more money but will also lose time that would previously have been dedicated to housework. Hiring a cleaner is, therefore, a convenient solution to maximise the amount of free time available outside of working hours by outsourcing housework.
Cleaning services are very good value in the UK
Of all the household chores that can be outsourced, cleaning is one of the most cost effective options available. The average hourly rate to hire a cleaner in the UK is around £12 an hour whereas trades such as plumbers, electricians and landscape gardeners will charge £40 an hour at the very least. Even a regular gardening service will typically charge at least £15 an hour.
The cost of hiring a domestic cleaner has fallen substantially over the past 15 years. In 2006, the typical cost of hiring a cleaner in London was around £20-£25 per hour. By 2015, this had fallen to less than £15 per hour with some online agencies offering cleaning services for as little as £10 per hour.
This drop in average prices means that hiring a cleaner in the UK is also comparatively cheaper than similar services in some other European countries. In Paris, for example, the average price for hiring a cleaner online is around €21 (£19) an hour and the same service in Berlin will cost about €20 (£18.20) an hour. Simply put, hiring a domestic cleaner in the UK is very good value-for-money.
Price war in London cleaning market
The fall in prices was driven mainly by increased competition and the entry of technology-driven apps into the market. From 2015, consumers in London benefited from new entrants fighting for their market share. These new entrants had substantial backing from venture capital firms that allowed them to reduce prices to £10 per hour and offer discounts to attract new customers.
Some of the new cleaning companies failed or have withdrawn from the UK cleaning market. Average prices have rebounded somewhat but are still far below historic levels.
Technology keeping prices low
Technological advancements have ensured that it is now easier than ever to find and hire a domestic cleaner. Many online services (such as TidyChoice) allow their users to book a cleaner online without needing to make any phone calls or vet cleaners.
Online booking and scheduling technology as well as online payments allow cleaning services platforms to reduce back office costs and scale efficiently. These efficiencies are passed onto consumers with lower pricing.
High demand from young professionals
A study by Helpling demonstrated that millennials aged 25-34 were a driving factor in the domestic cleaning sector’s growth. 40% of people in this age bracket either already hire a cleaner or are actively looking for one. With many professionals within this age bracket working long hours, it is unsurprising that they would be less inclined to dedicate their free time to cleaning their homes.
This generation’s stance towards the gig economy may also be a significant factor in their willingness to hire a cleaner. Simply put, it is now more socially acceptable to hire external assistance with gardening, cooking, and cleaning. This willingness to spend money to free up leisure time is likely to be a driving factor in the domestic cleaning sector’s growth moving forwards.
Free time becoming more highly valued
A survey undertaken by Beko found that only half of the adults surveyed set aside time to clean their home every week. 40% of those surveyed cited a busy work life as a major contributing factor in their lack of cleaning time. With both partners working, it is now far more likely that a household will have enough disposable income to cover the cost of a cleaner in order to free up their leisure time. The more highly we value our free time, the more likely we are to be willing to spend some money to hold onto it.
More households working from home
Over the last 5 years, the number of people working from home in the UK has been increasing. A report from 2019 found that just over 5% of British workers were working mainly from home. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 lockdown, it is highly likely that we will see this figure increase.
A recent survey by ICM revealed that 45% of UK workers predicted a permanent change in their employer’s stance on working from home. While not all jobs can be done from home, we can expect to see a sizable proportion of those currently working from home to transition to working remotely for at least some of the week. Outside of the potential benefits of reducing pollution and time lost commuting, this shift could also increase the demand for cleaners.
It is likely that more people working from home will be a net positive for the domestic cleaning sector. The mental health benefits of living in a clean environment, for instance, will be drastically more important to people who are spending more time at home. Additionally, the more time people spend at home, the more mess they are likely to create. While there will certainly be some people who continue to clean their own property, as well as home-based workers who prefer not to have cleaners around, we still suspect that any increase in the number of people working at home will lead to an increased demand for housekeeping services.
Along with the increase in demand for cleaners has, of course, come an increase in the number of people working in the sector. The flexible hours of domestic cleaners can be appealing to some, as well as the opportunity to set one’s own areas of work.
In 2019, there were 4.7 million gig economy workers in the UK, with little sign of any downward trends. The flexibility that these jobs offer to workers is undoubtedly appealing. A number of online platforms for cleaners allow cleaners to reach potential customers with greater ease, reducing the amount of time that needs to be spent on marketing themselves online. An additional perk with TidyChoice is the ability to set their own rates, something that would not be possible working for a more traditional agency.
2) Impact of Covid-19 on the UK cleaning sector
Up until 2019, the domestic cleaning sector had been growing quickly. In early 2020, the lockdown imposed by the UK government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on demand for house cleaning services.
Sharp drop in demand for house cleaning services
On 23 March, Boris Johnson imposed the following restrictions across the whole of the UK:
People were required to stay at home with few exceptions
All non-essential businesses and venues were closed to the public
Public gatherings of more than two people were forbidden
When the initial announcement was made, it was unclear how these rules impacted domestic cleaners. It was later clarified that cleaners were technically allowed to work during the lockdown as long as they followed the correct precautions and were not displaying any symptoms of COVID-19. While domestic cleaners were allowed to continue working, it was not made clear to the public and many chose to cancel their regular cleaning service to minimise the risk of infection to both themselves and their cleaners.
As a result of these cancellations, many cleaning companies experienced a sharp drop in revenue in April. We estimate that the sector saw a 60% decrease in revenue in April over March. The British Cleaning Council has requested to meet with a government minister to ensure that consistent messaging and training is rolled out over the coming months.
The UK cleaning industry was impacted much more severely than other countries. It is estimated that revenue only declined by 30% in Italy, 20% in Australia and 18% in Spain. Surprisingly, it actually rose by 4% in Denmark.
Demand for home cleaning started to return after the prime minister outlined his "roadmap" to bring the country out of lockdown on 10th May. The government started to encourage certain sectors to return to work and provided guidance on making workplaces Covid-secure.
TidyChoice saw an 81% increase in new bookings for the second half of the month of May over the first half. Overall, revenue for May was 33% above April. The upward trend continued in June with a similar monthly increase in revenue.
At the time of writing, the UK is continuing to loosen restrictions following its lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While the period of lockdown has undoubtedly affected domestic cleaners, they are now returning to work for their old customers.
While it is impossible to predict how long it will take for things to return to normal, we can anticipate an uptick in demand for cleaning services over the coming months. It is also possible that we will see an increase in customers looking for a one-off deep clean if they have understandably neglected their housework during the lockdown. On the other hand, we know that at least 5% of our customer base will not be able to renew their regular cleaning services immediately due to a change in financial circumstances.
The commercial cleaning sector is quietly optimistic about their earnings post-lockdown. The Chief Executive of Cleanology told twinfm.com:
“Once we get through this crisis, and we will, cleaning will be one of the few winners. Cleaning will be much higher up the corporate agenda as a non-discretionary spend to keep employees safe.”
It is entirely possible that the COVID-19 pandemic will encourage both homeowners and employers to place greater emphasis on the importance of clean surroundings. While we expect the next 18 months to be difficult, the cleaning industry has the potential to recover and continue to grow.
(C) Outlook for the UK cleaning industry
Like many other sectors, the cleaning industry has two major challenges to overcome over the next few years, the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit.
Firstly, it remains to be seen how quickly the sector can bounce back following the UK lockdown. In addition to the financial strain on both businesses and consumers, there is a fundamental issue of trust that must be overcome. After upholding social distancing measures for so long, it is possible that some families will not be particularly eager to welcome people back into their homes.
The industry must also prepare itself for the impact of Brexit. Since many specifics concerning Britain’s departure from the EU remain unclear, we cannot be certain of the impact that Brexit will have on the industry at large. If the average family’s disposable income takes a hit, that could lead to a decrease in demand for domestic cleaners. Additionally, there are many EU migrants working in the UK cleaning sector who may return home if a no-deal Brexit occurs.
Covid-19 and economic outlook
Current projections by OECD are predicting that women and low income workers will be hit hardest by the economic impact of Covid.Since domestic cleaning is largely staffed by these demographics, some smaller businesses may end up being forced to close if their finances are already in jeopardy.
It is possible, on the other hand, that domestic cleaning will be an exception to the general trend since its customer base is typically wealthier and more likely to have been able to keep their jobs by working from home. The key deciding factor will be how quickly former customers begin to hire cleaners again as lockdown restrictions are lifted.
Impact of Brexit
In a separate blog post, we addressed the potential impact of Brexit on the cleaning sector. Over 40% of general cleaning staff in the UK are migrants and of these, many are EU nationals. A survey conducted internally at TidyChoice found that 13% of housekeepers would leave the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Until further details are confirmed it is difficult to know the full impact Brexit will have on the cleaning industry but it is possible that demand for domestic cleaners could overtake the supply if enough migrant workers left the UK.
Average household income, UK: financial year ending 2019, Office for National Statistics
Cleaning. A dirty word for Brits?, Beko.co.uk
Coronavirus and homeworking in the UK labour market: 2019, Office for National Statistics
Family Spending in the UK: April 2018 to March 2019, Office for National Statistics
Female employment rate (aged 16 to 64, seasonally adjusted), Office for National Statistics
GBServTO: 81.2 - Cleaning activities, Office for National Statistics
How Much Do Cleaners Charge? (UK 2020), In The Wash
Pricing Guides, MyBuilder
The 5 trends that will shape the cleaning industry in 2019, foremost-uk.com
The Cleaning and Support Services Industry: Research Report 2021, British Cleaning Council