A shock to the economic system

Jun 02, 2020
Annette Hughes outlines the four consumer behaviour trends that have emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 crisis is being defined by four distinct consumer behaviour responses, according to the first edition of the EY Future Consumer Index. The survey tracks consumer sentiment and behaviour across several geographies, but these four behaviours, outlined below, are all evident in Ireland and have implications for the pending economic recovery.

  1. Cut deep (27%): these consumers are mainly more than 45 years old and have seen the biggest impact on their employment status. Almost one-quarter have seen their jobs suspended, either temporarily or permanently. 78% are shopping less frequently, while 64% are only buying essentials.
  2. Stay calm, carry on (26%): these consumers do not feel directly impacted by the pandemic and are not changing their spending habits. Just 21% are spending more on groceries, compared with 18% who are spending less.
  3. Save and stockpile (35%): this segment has a particular concern for their families and the long-term outlook. 36% are spending more on groceries, while most are spending less on clothing (72%) and leisure (85%).
  4. Hibernate and spend (11%): usually aged between 18-44, these consumers are most concerned about the impact of the pandemic with 40% shopping less frequently.

Rationalised personal consumption

From the Irish economy’s perspective, the unprecedented impact on the labour market has a significant effect on consumer spending. Personal consumption accounts for around one-third of Ireland’s GDP. Before COVID-19, the economic recovery was associated with a healthy annual average growth in consumer spending of 3.5% over the last five years. With the categories affected by containment measures accounting for around one-half of consumer spending, according to the Central Bank of Ireland, a sharp contraction in consumer spending is expected in 2020, which in turn impacts on investment and overall GDP. Recent projections from the Department of Finance forecast that personal consumption will contract by 14.2% this year, with GDP down by 10.5% (April 2020).

The impact of the pandemic on employment, supply chains, travel and tourism, and mobility has hugely reduced consumer confidence and spending – and the shock is likely to be felt for some time to come. Looking beyond the immediate effects of COVID-19, few consumers expect to revert to pre-crisis behaviours any time soon. Overall, 42% of respondents believe that the way they shop will fundamentally change as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Plummeting consumer confidence

While these four segments could morph as the crisis abates, the adverse impact of the pandemic on consumer confidence remains. In an Irish context, the KBC Consumer Confidence Index fell to its lowest level in the survey’s 24-year history due to a combination of weak conditions and the risk of poorer prospects.

584,600 people are in receipt of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment while the unadjusted Live Register total for April 2020 was 214,741. An additional 425,204 are being facilitated through Revenue’s Temporary COVID-19 Wage Subsidy Scheme. This implies that in the region of 1.224 million people – or almost 50% of the workforce – are in receipt of some form of income support.

Joined-up thinking required

The recovery in consumption will depend on the extent to which the unemployment situation is reversed. Companies that were struggling to keep up with changing consumer behaviour before the pandemic are now faced with the challenge of anticipating how consumers will evolve beyond the pandemic.

The Government’s roadmap to ease COVID-19 restrictions and re-open Ireland’s economy and society on a phased basis are welcome, but the pace at which different sectors and regions begin to recover will vary greatly. While smaller towns may benefit from increased local spending, online sales are likely to remain high, at least in the short-term. We must look at what business and governments can do together to help everyone get through what continues to be an incredibly difficult period to ensure that they are all ready to participate in the recovery when it comes.
Annette Hughes is an Economist and Director at EY-DKM Economic Advisory.