Consumer caution: Sentiment still strong but will new realities dampen Golden Quarter optimism?
Record levels of consumer confidence finally revert to more expected levels, as inflation, concern over supply chains and out-of-stocks cause a slight decline in optimism. While sentiment remains broadly positive, these new realities may offer an insight into future spending. We look at what these findings might mean for retailers and hospitality operators as we head into a critical Golden Quarter.
Consumer sentiment has been somewhat turbulent in the last 18 months. At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw the biggest ever drop in confidence, followed by a steady recovery as government support and other interventions helped confidence grow.
But we’re now seeing a slight waning of consumer confidence, as sentiment returns to more normal levels.
However, at +3, sentiment remains positive - i.e. more respondents thought they would be better off in the next 12 months than worse off. It has returned to the same level we had seen in December 2019, the last sentiment survey we conducted before the pandemic. And while it’s at the lowest level we’ve seen in 2021, confidence is still higher than at any point between the 2016-19 period following the EU referendum.
This time, we’ve seen sentiment decline in almost every age category, region, and demographic. Many of these are slight declines, but it’s been enough to push several groups into negative territory.
Contrast that with our June survey, where every demographic group and region was net positive for the first time, it suggests that people might be starting to feel uneasy about financial security.
There’s been quite a significant decline among the older age groups, with all the over 45s in negative numbers, and 55 - 64s now the least optimistic group (-11 net). However, those under 45 remain largely positive, with 25-34 year olds being the only demographic group to have maintained sentiment. This may be a delayed impact of the vaccine effect, with most now having had the opportunity to have been fully vaccinated since our last survey in June.
Interestingly, while under 25s are still the most optimistic age group, we’ve seen sentiment fall fastest among them (-10). Usually, at this time of year, we expect a bump in their confidence, driven by a return to university or entering the workforce. The end of furlough and fewer job opportunities for graduates could be having an impact on the sentiment of this key age group.
With talk of price inflation for non-discretionary goods and services, we wanted to see how people had actually been affected.
Around half of people surveyed have experienced either grocery price inflation (compared to earlier this year) or utility/petrol price inflation. A similar number of people expect that inflation to continue over the coming months. With our survey conducted before the failure of several large utility companies, and before the current petrol shortages, we would expect even higher numbers if we conducted the survey now.
Similarly, the majority of respondents have witnessed empty shelves at supermarkets, and for most of those people that translated into items being out of stock in their grocery basket. People indicated that they are only expecting out-of-stocks to get worse as we approach Christmas.
Whether inflation or out-of-stocks, they appear to have disproportionately affected older people. While two-thirds of 55-64 year olds say their grocery shop is more expensive than earlier this year, that figure was just 31% for 18-24 year olds. This may explain why sentiment has generally fallen so much among older adults, as concerns about inflation weigh on their disposable income expectations.
Conversely , the ‘pingdemic’ earlier in summer, which caused staffing issues at hospitality venues and restrictions on menus as ingredients ran short, was far more likely to have affected young people: 30% of under 25s said they couldn’t order something at a restaurant or pub due to ingredient shortages, and 27% said they experienced slower service due to staff shortages.
Earlier this year, category spending expectations were upturned. Easing lockdowns saw expectations of increased spending on going out, holidays and fashion, and discretionary categories exceeded ‘essential’ categories for the first time.
We’re now seeing a reversion to a more normal picture, with grocery shopping and home improvement the only categories with a net positive spending intention - i.e. more respondents thought they would spend more on these categories in the next 12 months than spend less. And given the price inflation previously mentioned, it’s not surprising that people expected spending on groceries to increase.
Home spending continues to be prioritised as the nesting trend of the lockdown continues, as does the popularity of hybrid working for some.
In hospitality, although spending intention on going out, holidays and fashion has fallen back, they remain ahead of other categories. It appears there is still an eagerness for ‘revenge spending’.
However, a drop-off in spending intention on big-ticket items, such as furniture and household appliances, is a concern, with people expecting to spend less outnumbering those who expect to spend more by 3 to 1. This could be an indicator of future consumer optimism. People are significantly less likely to invest in these items when concerned about income security.
“It’s little surprise that consumer sentiment has not maintained the record levels we saw earlier in the year. But with confidence stronger than last year - and for most of the post-referendum period - it’s not all bad news.”
Lisa Hooker, Leader of Industry for Consumer Markets, PwC UK
While sentiment remains resilient in the short-term, that positivity must come with a warning.
The inflationary factors that have triggered the decline in sentiment are unlikely to ease in the short term, particularly for grocery, utilities and petrol. Combined with the current problems facing those industries in relation to supply, we’re beginning to see it affecting consumers’ day-to-day lives and, in turn, sentiment and demand.
For both retail and leisure sectors, the timing couldn’t be worse.
After the disappointment of last year, retailers and hospitality operators desperately need a strong Golden Quarter in 2021. Even without lockdowns, they will need to convince consumers to part with savings to have any hope of recovering to pre-pandemic levels.
For many, the coming weeks will be make or break: can the driver shortages and supply chain pressures be rectified? Will the crisis at the petrol pumps be resolved? And will higher energy prices cause more widespread inflationary pressures and a reluctance from consumers to spend?
1. PwC’s latest consumer sentiment survey was conducted between 17-20 September 2021 and includes responses from a nationally representative sample of 2,070 adults.
2. PwC has asked the same question every few months since April 2008: “Thinking about your disposable income (money remaining after household bills, credit cards, etc.), in the next 12 months do you expect that your household will be better off or worse off?”. The index is calculated by subtracting the percentage of people who think they will be worse off from those who think they will be better off. Historically this index has provided an insight into the pulse of the nation, and has been a good indicator of future consumer spending patterns.