7 minute read 9 Jun 2020
Woman pushing a shopping cart in a supermarket

Future Consumer Index: Rise of the UK ‘Anxious Consumer’

Authors

Julie Carlyle

EY UK&I Head of Retail

Passionate leader of the cross-discipline EY UK&I Retail practice. Helping consumer clients navigate and thrive in a complex and rapidly changing sector.

Silvia Rindone

EY UK&I Retail Partner

Strategic mind with a pragmatic spin. Intellectually curious. Mother of two. Passion for art, food and travel.

7 minute read 9 Jun 2020

The EY Future Consumer Index confirms new UK consumer segments as key lockdown trends accelerate.

UK consumer-facing companies have been faced with unparalleled levels of disruption throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. But as lockdowns begin to ease across the country, there could be new challenges ahead.

At the start of the crisis, consumers were forced to make immediate and stark changes to their lives that accelerated and, in some instances, led to behavioural shifts. Our inaugural EY Future Consumer Index in April 2020 revealed new consumer segments and important nuances emerging as the crisis persisted. 

As our latest Index illustrates, these shifts are further accentuated across all segments in terms of consumption patterns, comfort levels when undertaking day-to-day activities and future outlook in a post-pandemic world.  

UK consumers remain deeply cautious – all segments do not feel very comfortable undertaking ‘normal’ activities and believe it will take months, if not years, before their behaviours and attitudes return to pre-COVID-19 levels. For the consumer industry, it is critical to understand how best to face this emerging ‘Anxious Consumer’, addressing increased concerns regarding health and wellness, heightened sense of safety and greater demand for value.

Looking through a global lens, there are clearly green shoots of hope ahead. Whilst a different market, with a unique economic and political system, consumption patterns in China – much further through lockdown easing than in the UK – are more consistent with ‘normality’. 

Here we explore evolving consumer trends as UK lockdowns started to lift, the factors driving purchases, and indicative lessons from emerging Chinese consumer behaviours. 

Consumers are still cautious

45% of UK consumers believe the way they shop over the next one to two years will change.  

Understanding the financial concerns of consumers and analysing how they might shop are important, but considering how comfortable consumers feel about undertaking day-to-day activities is also crucial.

Rise of the Anxious Consumer

There is a relative level of discomfort about undertaking ‘normal’ activity, despite lockdown restrictions easing. Our latest Index highlights that a massive 80% of UK consumers feel uncomfortable about using an in-store changing room, while similarly high levels of anxiety are also felt about attending entertainment venues, going out for food and drink, travelling on public transport (all 78%) and going to a mall (63%). This heightened fear is echoed globally. 

Even though visiting a grocery store has remained a necessity for many people during lockdown, only a quarter actually feel comfortable doing so. There is undoubtedly an increased state of awareness and uncertainty among consumers about their own health and safety, as well as those in their immediate circles. Risk is front of mind - in every segment, consumers expect to go shopping less frequently, but will spend more when they do. Similarly, 57% will be more cognisant of hygiene and sanitation when shopping in-person over the next one to two years.

Overall, it appears that UK consumers are gearing themselves up to live more risk-averse lives. More than two-thirds (67%) believe it will take months or longer before they feel comfortable going to a restaurant, with similar sentiments for visiting cinemas and bars/pubs.

UK consumers

80%

feel uncomfortable about trying clothes on in a store as restrictions ease.

UK consumers

64%

will consolidate shopping trips into less frequent, but larger purchases over the next one to two years.

UK Anxious Consumers are wary of undertaking day-to-day activities

How long it will take for UK consumers to feel comfortable

Percentages are rounded to nearest whole number.

UK consumer companies will need to be aware of these concerns and make every effort to mitigate consumer anxiety if they are to prosper in this new market. But with much lower levels of discomfort about similar day-to-day activities in China, is there a possibility our feelings will ease the more lockdown is relaxed?

Lockdown behaviour the new normal?

When lockdown began in March, it was easy to assume that UK consumers would simply hunker down, stay at home, and focus on just essential purchases. But, as our Index suggests, the picture has been, and continues to be, far less straightforward.

UK consumers are becoming more pessimistic

Differences in consumer segmentation between April and May 2020

 

Percentages are rounded to nearest whole number.

In May, we witnessed an accelerated (albeit small) shift in how cautious consumers were feeling during the pandemic, reaffirming our initial analysis. Compared with 35% globally, more than two-fifths (43%) of UK consumers (versus 38% in April) now fall into the ‘Save and stockpile’ segment.  Less than a quarter (24%) are now extremely pessimistic and want to ‘Cut deep’, just above the global average. 

This segment, however, has almost disappeared in China (4% of consumers), suggesting that levels of doubt about the future may lessen as easing continues and perceptions about the economy improve.

But beyond the financial, how consumers shop is also changing 

Structural trends were already changing our shopping habits before COVID-19 emerged. But UK consumer companies will now need to be even more alert to their customers’ needs as lockdown eases.

Before the pandemic, factors such as whether a product was organic or sustainable, was defined as a luxury item, or could be personalised were important for many consumers. These have now given way to product availability (59%), price (43%) and health or wellness (41%).  Seemingly, this is a long-term trend with affordability and health listed in consumers’ expected top three purchase criteria in five years’ time.

And with businesses in hibernation and the imperative upon consumers to stay at home, there will be an inevitable rise in online shopping. Almost one in five (17%) consumers said they were expecting to shop more online in the next one to two years. Interestingly, however, the UK’s shift to online purchasing is expected to be slower than the majority of global markets surveyed. 

Besides necessity and convenience though, there’s a chance that ecommerce could be supported for months and years to come by the Anxious Consumer, a concept being borne out by people’s fears about returning to ‘normal’ life.

Green shoots of hope

The agility of many businesses, especially small- to medium-sized enterprises, has meant that younger and innovative brands have been able to capture the attention of consumers.

The desire for newness is being led by the younger (predominantly under 45), more tech-savvy ‘Back with a bang’ segment. 35% of this cohort are, over the next couple of years, looking for new and innovative brands produced by startups and show less loyalty to brands they have used previously than other consumer segments. 

This consumer group, though currently small, offers a glimmer of hope for retailers looking to get back to a ‘new normal’. They have pent-up demand for shopping, and likely want to spend, which could see a domino effect within other consumer segments.

China – a guiding light?

Whilst cautious, China’s consumers are far more likely than their UK peers to be in the ‘Back with a bang’ and ‘Cautiously extravagant’ segments, suggesting they are aiming to spend more money after COVID-19. 

The latest Index also shows that, despite 48% (higher than the UK at 23%) strongly agreeing that the way they live will significantly change in the long term as a result of COVID-19, consumers in China are twice as likely than the rest of the world to expect an economic recovery within the next 12 months and almost twice as likely to say they are confident about the future. 

There are encouraging signs too about what Chinese consumers are spending their money on compared with the rest of the world, including the UK. There has been a strong rebound in fresh food (62% expecting to spend more over the next month), beauty and cosmetics (29%) and clothing and footwear (33%) compared with international consumers.

Consumers in China are spending significantly more in certain product categories than those in the UK

% of consumers 'spending more' next month

Percentages are rounded to nearest whole number.

74% of Chinese consumers say whether a food product is ‘healthy/good for me’ has become a more important attribute, followed by quality of service (64%).  Seemingly, as countries emerge from lockdown, they may want to eat healthily and look after their appearance, relinquishing the focus on canned and frozen foods, and household cleaning items, that typified the peak of restrictions.

But UK companies might not just want to wait for the good times to arrive. Read our global bulletin for further analysis of emerging Chinese consumer behaviours.

What does this mean for you?

With 68% of UK consumers currently visiting physical stores less, and nearly half  (47%) believing it will take months or longer for the way they shop to return to normal, can companies hasten the Anxious Consumer’s recovery? While China might offer up some potentially enticing leading indicators, UK consumer companies will want to keep their fate in their hands as much as possible.  

It is already clear that shopping in-store will be a different experience than pre-COVID-19, but with over half (57%) believing a second outbreak will occur within the next six months, businesses can take proactive steps to help their customers feel more comfortable when they go shopping.

  1. Range and simplicity: the browsing experience, for example, will change. With social distancing, a person’s presence in-store could prevent someone else from entering, lessening browsing time, and making the shopping experience far more transactional. Simplifying the choice for consumers would also be a sensible move, so that every item can be easily seen and purchased.
  2. Importance of digital: the amplified use of contactless payments, driven by the desire to avoid handling cash, means consumer companies should ensure multiple forms of digital payment systems are in use. And apps, as well as the expansion of digital payment options, could also help improve the in-store experience at critical moments, such as queuing and payment.

    As far ahead as 2022, nearly a fifth (17%) of UK consumers are expected to shop online for items they would have previously bought in-store. It will be crucial to consider how supply chains and distribution networks handle more online orders and increase capacity over the coming years to cope with this shift.

    With more time and less physical touchpoints, some consumer technology dependencies developed during lockdown will become more habitual. Companies have a limited window of opportunity to build engagement that they can nurture into the now and beyond. What capabilities will enable your company to engage with a more digitally-orientated consumer base?

Adaptability has always been crucial for any consumer-facing business, but it will be more important than ever for companies if they are to emerge stronger from this pandemic.

  • Methodology

    We surveyed 12,843 consumers across the US, Canada, Brazil, UK, France, Germany, India, UAE, Saudi Arabia, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand during the week of 4 May 2020. Of those, this article focuses on 1,017 UK and 1,178 Chinese respondents.  The survey questionnaire covered current behaviours, sentiment and intent. 

Summary

The latest EY Future Consumer Index explores evolving UK consumer trends as COVID-19 lockdowns started to lift, the factors driving purchases and indicative lessons from emerging Chinese consumer behaviours.  

About this article

Authors

Julie Carlyle

EY UK&I Head of Retail

Passionate leader of the cross-discipline EY UK&I Retail practice. Helping consumer clients navigate and thrive in a complex and rapidly changing sector.

Silvia Rindone

EY UK&I Retail Partner

Strategic mind with a pragmatic spin. Intellectually curious. Mother of two. Passion for art, food and travel.