Consumer behaviour is changing, but is it for better or worse?

The economy is under pressure, consumer confidence is down, but how have these developments affected the range of consumers’ consumption and behaviour? Research consultant Sue Burden explains.

Which areas of consumer confidence are growing and which are in decline? Change brings threats, but also opportunities – knowing what exactly consumers are changing in response to economic and other pressures, which groups of consumers are making the changes and why they’re making them puts brands in a stronger position to capitalise on opportunities, rather than succumb to threats.

Understanding the extent and motivation for changes in consumers’ lives was the objective of the Recent Changes Study conducted by Realia Research with Research Now. This asked a representative sample of 1,006 UK consumers about changes they had made recently and the details behind the changes.

There has been a lot of change – on average consumers mentioned 11.35 areas of recent change, across 40 categories representing areas of life, such as mobile and computer usage, holidays, and home and work life.

Increased internet usage was most frequently mentioned, cited by nearly half of all respondents from all ages. Online shopping is a big part of this, reflecting the fact that the UK population is now recording the highest level of online shopping in Europe.

The study highlights money-saving, convenience and even environmental reasons for increased online shopping – ’it saves using the car’, explains one respondent. Using chat forums, watching TV online, gaming and downloading music are all also boosting internet usage. Says another respondent: ’I hardly used the internet before, now I do everything from shopping to managing my accounts, to eBay and emailing family who live abroad – can’t live without it now’. I remember a discussion with a major retailer just 18 months ago recommending they enhance their web presence – now this would not even be an issue to discuss.

TV viewing, the second highest change, is a another case where new technology has promoted behavioural development – most of the change related to respondents getting PVRs like Sky+ or digital TV recorders; or watching online and being more discerning about the content they consume. ’I watch less television, but more regular television – I watch Glee weekly whereas I used to just flick,’ said a survey respondent.

Mobile phones and other portable devices such as laptops are also in the Change ’Top Ten’. Consumption here is increasing, prompted by free phone upgrades and sexy new IT products. Another high-change area was holidays – although 13% said they were taking more holidays, 32% were taking holidays in the UK or fewer holidays. The ’staycation’ may be here to stay after all.

Changes in health and food also feature frequently in consumers’ recent changes. The vast majority of food changes are related to health, even if money-saving was also a motivation. ’I’m now eating supermarket own-brand ’weightwatcher’ foods and I’m eating less takeaways’, noted one respondent.

One surprise was the level of change around gardening – 36% of the total sample had made a change in this area, with nearly all doing more of it, and many growing vegetables. The 18 to 29 year old demographic is the largest single age group behind this trend – often involving children. ’I have started growing vegetables with the children and doing more gardening in general’, commented a survey respondent.

Health, environment, time with the family, cost-saving: this trend ticks every box. Even for brands not directly involved with tilling the soil, this provides ideas for relevant promotions, books, TV programmes and web content aimed at this age-group.

Other home-focused areas such as furniture and decorating are at the mid-level of changes mentioned – with the recession discouraging out-of-home leisure spending, more time spent in the home means consumers want to enhance it.

Less popular changes include bank current account, insurance and energy suppliers with only 18 to 24% citing changes in these areas. Here it’s even more important for brands to understand which groups to target with their reduced activity budgets.

As ever, knowledge is power – the more knowledge brands have about their consumers and the changes they are making, the more likely they will be able to turn these to their advantage.

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