7 minute read 22 Jul 2020
Man with a face mask, grocery shopping

Future Consumer Index: UK consumers adapting to the ‘new normal’

Authors

Mona Bitar

UK&I Consumer Leader, Ernst & Young LLP

Experienced business advisor for over 25 years. Amateur poet and historian. Brings multi-cultural perspectives as a proud Palestinian Brit.

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 22 Jul 2020

As COVID-19 restrictions continue to ease, the EY Future Consumer Index indicates a shift from anxious to more optimistic consumer.

B
oth before and during COVID-19 lockdown, UK consumer anxiety hit new heights. Consumers worried about their finances and health, and – even as restrictions eased and stores reopened – were reluctant to spend, especially instore. Today, these worries are abating, with consumers eager for normality but equally aware that returning to normal will take time.

Analysis for the third EY Future Consumer Index highlights three key trends emerging among UK consumers. These include relaxing attitudes to resuming everyday life; a greater desire to return to normal in terms of how they spend; and a continued shift in channel use to favour online, despite the reopening of stores.

Whilst encouraging, the anxious consumer identified in June’s Index remains. There is no quick fix – nervousness prevails. Moving forward, retailers will need to ensure they focus on three important tactics as consumers relax back into shopping:

  1. Reassuring the customer that retailers are doing all they can to ensure their safety instore
  2. Catering to shifting demands (online) and building capacity to deal with said increased demand
  3. Acknowledging the emphasis on health and well-being, and aligning communications and their proposition accordingly

A desire for normal as confidence returns

Our ongoing Index illustrates that, as optimism slowly returns, the desire for normality has been building. The proportion of UK consumers pessimistic about how they shop in the future has fallen by a third, down from 31% at the launch of the Index and beginning of lockdown (April) to 22% in June.

In the initial EY Future Consumer Index, we identified five ‘next’ consumer segments, defined by future spending habits. Of these, the ‘get to normal’ consumer, who believes they will resume normal spending patterns post COVID-19 crisis, has increased the most. As of June, nearly half (47%) of UK consumers consider themselves to be in this category, compared with 28% in May. 

UK consumer segment distribution between April and June

Those who were more focused on cutting spending has also fallen. The ‘keep cutting’ segment, who had already made radical cuts, fell from 12% (May) to 4% (June), while those focused on ‘staying frugal’ fell from 27% to 19%.

This improved optimism indicates that consumers are starting to feel more secure – both in terms of easing lockdown restrictions and the fall in COVID-19 cases, as well as changing attitudes to their finances. Half of UK consumers say they are more aware of their spending and are trying to save more because of COVID-19, regardless of their income level. This is unsurprising – some financial loss has been felt by consumers at all income levels, with low-income segments worst hit. This greater awareness of income and spending has filtered through into increased long-term confidence in future finances. Almost a third of those surveyed (32%) believe they will be in a better financial position a year from now, up from 24% the previous month. Savings have increased too, and while it is difficult to determine whether this is from pent-up consumer demand or consumers insuring against longer-term uncertainty, signs around actual and planned spending suggest at least some level of the former.

Planned and actual spending on both non-essentials (beauty, clothing and footwear), as well as big ticket items (furniture and large electronics), is increasing – an encouraging sign of improving consumer confidence. In April, only 13% of UK consumers said they were planning on spending more on big ticket items in the future. That figure has since risen to 18% (June).

But nerves remain, especially instore

Although general confidence in finances is increasing, there are exceptions. Consumers in the ‘stay frugal’ segment remain worried, with almost a third (32%) believing they will be worse off a year from now, consistent with the level in May.

As more shoppers have returned to stores, comfort around shopping in person has increased. Consumers are likely to have been reassured by the safety measures that retailers have put in place such as sanitising stations, screens and social distancing. The comfort of shopping in grocery stores has almost doubled since May, up to 48% in June, while the comfort of going to a mall has risen from 15% to 26%.

But cautiousness around instore experience persists, with the anxious consumer once again coming to the fore. The proportion of consumers who feel comfortable trying on clothes instore has doubled since May, but still only accounts for 17%. Nearly half (48%) of consumers say it will take months or longer for the way they shop to return to normal.

For those who think the way they shop will change, minimising exposure is a key factor – nearly two-thirds (59%) of consumers will look to consolidate shopping trips into less frequent but larger purchases. Consumers are also more aware of their surroundings, with 63% now more cognisant of hygiene and sanitation, up from 57% the month before.

Online, and investment in the channel, remains critical

For some consumers, nervousness regarding a return to normal is translating into a continued shift to online shopping, which is expected to continue to rise across all segments. Despite stores reopening, consumer intention to shop online in the long term has increased dramatically. In June, 43% of consumers said they will shop more online for products previously bought in stores, compared with 17% in May. 

UK consumers that will shop more online for products previously bought in stores

To deal with instore demand shifting online during lockdown, grocery retailers responded quickly to build capacity. But while stores are now open, our Index shows that investment in online capabilities will need to continue. This is both to enable retailers to immediately capture their share of this increased online spend, but also to lay the foundations for strong omnichannel capability in the future.

The growth in online sales is encouraging – yet for physical retailers does not translate into higher margins. Retailers are facing rising costs of in store operations as they manage increased staff costs, enhanced sanitation measures plus the well-known margin challenges of online.

What this means for retailers and consumer goods companies

There is light at the end of the tunnel as UK consumers emerge from lockdown and endeavour to return to normality. But not all will. 5% of those surveyed stated that they do not think how they shop will ever return to normal. 

How quickly UK consumers think things will return to normal

For those aiming for normalcy, there is no doubt it will take time to achieve. Retailers will need to significantly adapt existing offerings to serve the ‘new normal’ consumer in the near future.

  1. Adapt operations: physical retail will need to continue to adapt operations and offers to capture the share of comfortable instore consumers. They will need to maintain heightened focus on hygiene and sanitation and reassuring the customer.
  2. Build online capability: all retailers should continue to embrace the opportunity of online – our Index suggests its growth is a lasting trend. This will enable them to gain sales now and in the future.
  3. Control costs: those seeing growth in online sales must remember that these will likely be tempered by reduced sales instore, coupled with increase operational costs instore.
  4. Give it time: as we have seen, although consumers are trying to revert to normal, it will take time. Others have changed their shopping behaviours for good.

With 61% of UK consumers stating they will be more aware and cautious about their physical health in the longer term, easing the nerves of customers will continue to centre on reassurance. UK retailers will need to focus on making the consumer feel protected and secure. Today, it is more important than ever for retailers to put customers’ health and wellbeing at the centre of their strategy. 

  • Methodology

    We surveyed 14,074 consumers across the US, Canada, Brazil, UK, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, India, UAE, Saudi Arabia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Australia and New Zealand during the week of 8 June 2020. Of those, this article focuses on 1,012 UK respondents. The survey questionnaire covered current behaviours, sentiment and intent.

Summary

UK consumers have adapted to life in a pandemic. As COVID-19 restrictions continue to ease, the latest EY Future Consumer Index illustrates a shift from anxious to more optimistic consumer. Here we identify key trends and considerations for consumer companies responding to the ‘new normal’. 

About this article

Authors

Mona Bitar

UK&I Consumer Leader, Ernst & Young LLP

Experienced business advisor for over 25 years. Amateur poet and historian. Brings multi-cultural perspectives as a proud Palestinian Brit.

Silvia Rindone

EY UK&I Retail Partner

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