8 minute read 6 May 2020
woman using a laptop holding a credit card

Future Consumer Index: How COVID-19 is reshaping UK consumer behaviours

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.

8 minute read 6 May 2020

The EY Future Consumer Index on UK behaviour and sentiment shows how the pandemic is creating new consumer segments.

The world has changed in ways that would have been unthinkable months ago. UK consumer companies have been at the forefront of these changes, but how can they prepare and position themselves for what happens next?

The sector has shown remarkable agility to keep UK households up and down the country supplied during the COVID-19 pandemic and, from social distancing at supermarkets to using new online channels, there have been seismic shifts in consumer behaviours.

But what does the future hold? Will households revert to their earlier habits when the UK economy restarts? Or will some behaviours be reshaped forever? And if so, what will this mean for the sector?

Expanding on the FutureConsumer.Now program, we have created the EY Future Consumer Index to help leaders understand and track emerging consumer behaviours and sentiment around the world. The index will allow us to identify and prepare for the new consumer. More importantly, we can gauge temporary reactions to changing circumstances and what points to more fundamental shifts.

Now and next – key consumer segments and how they will evolve

Right now, consumers are worried about the immediate health of their families, whether they can buy for their basic needs, and the loss of freedoms that we all took for granted. Those common concerns are manifesting themselves in different ways.

Across the UK, some consumers are making deep cuts. Others are continuing to spend as normal – but are changing how they live in other ways. Looking across index data, we have identified four segments that have emerged from the crisis.

The real question, however, is what happens next?

To find out, we asked consumers what they believe they will do once they feel the crisis is over. This will enable us to track their changing expectations about the future.

The chart below outlines five very different consumer segments as the crisis abates. 

  • Get to normal are the least affected and most resilient segment. Their age profile is on the older side and their main focus is to minimise changes and disruption to their daily lives.  Nearly half (45%) have suffered no interruption to their employment during the pandemic and they are the least willing segment to pay a premium.
  • Cautiously extravagant consumers have seen the outbreak impact their ability to travel and socialise but are optimistic about what the future holds. Mainly in the middle-income bracket, they understand that financial stability may take years to return to normal but still expect to spend more when the outbreak ends. They score highest for caring: over two-thirds (up to 72%) would be more likely to purchase from a company that cares for its staff, takes measures to fight the outbreak or supports the community.
  • Stay frugal consumers are typically middle income and are wary of the longer-term impacts of the outbreak. They expect to continue to focus on price and will not be increasing their discretionary spending any time soon.  
  • Keep cutting consumers have seen the deepest economic impact and are most worried about the future.  Half of them plan on prioritising and re-evaluating their finances when the outbreak is over and many will continue to tighten their belts in anticipation of a sustained recession. Over two-thirds (71%) currently only purchase essentials and expect to cut back more, particularly on discretionary items.
  • Back with a bang consumers are itching to get back out and spend money on socialising and shopping. 60% will prioritise catching up on leisure activities once the outbreak is over and 63% plan on shopping in stores as they reopen. They are the youngest and the smallest segment but could be highly influential in driving sales. Individuals are spending more on groceries, ordering more from food delivery services and purchasing more online than any other segment.

Discretionary spending – the emerging pattern

Since lockdown, consumers have understandably focussed their spending on essentials such as food, household and personal care. Discretionary purchases on beauty, clothing and footwear and big-ticket items have significantly reduced and are expected to remain low as the lockdown continues.

However, consumers are thinking about spending more in all three discretionary categories post-COVID-19, driven by pent-up demand. Clothing and footwear lead the way, with 21% expected to increase spending followed by beauty and cosmetics (15%) and big tickets items expected to be the slowest to pick up post-COVID-19, with just 12% of consumers expecting to spend more in this area. 

What does this mean for you?

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing daily life for UK consumers. In response, companies will need to adjust their business strategy and operating model.

Here we identify four overarching trends and how consumer-facing organisations can begin to address them.

1. The shift to value

Companies will need to revisit their cost and operating model to deal with increasingly price-sensitive consumers after COVID-19.

UK consumers are more sensitive about price than their global counterparts – driven in part by their pessimistic outlook – with 65% expecting a post-COVID-19 global recession, compared with France (57%) and US (53%). UK shoppers are also more downbeat about the impact of COVID-19 on their spend and the economy.

Companies are less likely to be able to demand higher prices for domestic goods. Just 26% of UK consumers would pay a premium for local products post-COVID-19, compared with 34% globally.

But there could be an opportunity to improve pricing by addressing broader consumer concerns. 63% of UK respondents cite product availability and nearly half (49%) name availability of delivery and product shelf life as being more important since lockdown. This highlights the role of the supply chain in satisfying a range of consumer concerns, from availability to ethics.

Overall, companies must examine how to serve new consumer expectations at a cost they can afford. Products or brands will need to successfully differentiate beyond price.

2. Health and wellbeing front of mind

UK retailers need to evolve their proposition as health and wellbeing considerations and accessibility drive consumers’ decision-making processes.

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of many areas of life we tend to take for granted. This is evidenced by UK consumers’ growing focus on health and wellbeing –­ two-fifths (40%) believe that it will be one of their three most important post-COVID-19 purchase criteria, compared with 37% globally. The proportion is even greater for the free-spending Back with a bang and Cautiously extravagant segments.

This offers consumer companies a chance to create value by communicating the healthy qualities of their products or aligning product development with this shifting consumer focus.

3. Changing channels 

Building online capabilities will be critical to prepare for a structural channel shift, but the degree of long-term impact remains as yet unclear.

During lockdown, all age groups are buying more online, but once we factor in future sentiment the path diverges: only 12% of older consumers (Silent Generation, Baby Boomer and Gen X) say they will shop more online in the next 1-2 years, compared with 27% for younger age groups (Millennial and Gen Z).  As a result of the outbreak, UK consumers are using household voice activated assistants to buy more goods and services. This, along with the disruption caused by panic buying, could accelerate both auto replenishment and direct to consumer channels.

Although a significant amount of shopping has shifted online out of necessity, companies must be careful about making any assumptions that it will continue and be aware of the needs of different segments.

4. Trust is a key factor

UK businesses will have to address low levels of trust and demonstrate support for the local community.

In a time of national crisis, trust is more important than ever. So, it is concerning that just one in five (22%) UK consumers completely trust the activities of retailers, well below Germany (30%) or France (27%). UK retailers also lag behind health care providers, pharmaceutical companies and even national governments in terms of trust.

The key to winning it back may be community support. Nearly half (49%) of UK consumers expect community spirit to be stronger in a post-COVID-19 world, much higher than in France (29%) and Germany (34%). But beware, UK consumers will not be easily persuaded of your good intentions: while 38% of consumers completely agree that brands have a responsibility to make positive change in the world, only 14% strongly agree that the actions brands are taking are good enough.

UK consumers

57%

more likely to make future purchases from companies that are actively supporting the community.

  • Methodology

    We surveyed 4,859 consumers across the US, Canada, UK, France and Germany during the week of 6 April 2020. Of those, the article above focuses on 1,397 UK respondents. The survey questionnaire covered current behaviours, sentiment and intent. 

Summary

UK consumer behaviour was already evolving at great speed. That process is now playing out faster than anyone could have imagined because of COVID-19. But it remains a dynamic and constantly changing picture. That is why we will be regularly refreshing the global EY Future Consumer Index and sharing new UK insights (including comparisons with key markets across North America, Europe, Asia, Middle East, India and South America) with you over the coming weeks and months.
 

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.