A nation of shopaholics

The growth of online retail opportunities may have altered our shopping habits, but the UK’s high streets remain in rude health as not even wet weather or interest rate rises can stop us spending

Last week the Office for National Statistics announced that UK retail sales in September were far better than expected – the best since 2004. Sales were boosted by the toys and gaming markets, rising 0.6% last month, but this was supported by heavy discounting by retailers.

This announcement would seem to show that the popular excuses of “wet weather” and “interest rate rises” often used by retailers to explain poor results are not seen by consumers as having any significant effect on their shopping habits. This notion is supported by a report from Havas-owned media agency Media Planning Group.

As part of MPG’s Fabric research programme, a survey among a panel of 50 UK families about their retail habits shows that only 22% of them say interest rate rises make them shop less. When asked about the effect of wet weather, only 12% say they shop less because of it and 23% say it actually makes them shop more.

The research contradicts reports from the British Retail Consortium that excessive wet weather and rising interest rates in the UK this summer resulted in reduced sales. However, the study does reveal that the weather can indeed play a significant part in shoppers’ motivations – 50% say hot weather makes them shop less.

These findings are particularly interesting due to the freak weather conditions we have experienced in the UK over the summer. It is perhaps surprising to learn what little impact families say the rain has on their desire to shop. This, however, could be explained by the increase in shopping at out-of-town centres where shoppers are under cover.

The research also asked consumers how they react to discounts – such an influence on the improvement in last month’s sales performance – and seasonal sales. A total of 74% of families admit they shop in the sales, with 37% saying sales encourage them to spend more money. Yet, 67% of respondents say they do not make specific plans to shop in the sales and 30% say they avoid shopping altogether during sales.

The top three products that families seek out in the sales are clothes (60%), furniture (52%) and electrical goods (46%). Interestingly, out-of-town centres are favoured as the place to shop for discounted items. Consumers are least likely to look for financial deals (83%), holidays (62%) and toys (61%) in the sales.

Families say the single thing that has have the most impact on their shopping habits is money, followed by school holidays. Indeed, 40% of respondents view shopping with their children during the school holidays as something to avoid, while 22% say it is a fun activity to enjoy together.

Similarly, slightly more panel members (26%) prefer to shop alone than with friends and family (19%), but the majority (56%) say it doesn’t change their shopping habits.

Families were also asked how they heard about the start of sales at their regular shops. A large proportion (62%) say they are not aware when sales are going to take place. However, when it comes to promoting sales, television advertisements (67%) and shop window displays (65%) prove to be the most effective way of informing consumers of sale activity.

E-mail and online display advertising are each cited by 21% of respondents, while direct mail proves to be the least effective, with just 9% of respondents taking notice of letters highlighting store discounts.

The survey shows that the internet is a key communications tool: 32% of families say they receive e-mail marketing communications from high street retailers about upcoming sales, with Next, Tesco and Marks & Spencer coming top.

Yet, despite news stories on the death of the high street as the Net grows in popularity, the majority of panel members (68%) say they still visit their local high street at least once a week. A large percentage of consumers turn to the high street to shop for weekly groceries (78%), but a substantial proportion of families admit to also heading to out-of-town centres to buy clothes (82%), furniture (80%) and electrical goods (76%).

Most families (78%) believe their shopping habits have changed over the past two years. Reasons they give include increasing use of the internet to make purchases, longer store opening hours and use of online sites to compare prices. When analysing the panellists’ online shopping habits, the research reveals 92% have shopped online at some point, and 54% use the internet to shop at least once a month. Most families now use the Net to purchase holidays (79%) and entertainment products (69%).

We have seen a huge difference in people’s retail habits over the past few years. Consumers are making the most of the opportunities available to them online and in store, such as the chance to check prices online and to shop after work rather than just at the weekend. 

Denise Turner, head of insight and effectiveness at MPG, contributed to this week’s Trends Insight

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