Irish consumer attitudes shift to new habits as Covid restrictions ease

Pricewatch: Purchases now based on ‘factors beyond price and quality’, new research says

New data  suggests that consumers may be becoming more proactive, more considered and less willing to accept sloppy service and questionable morals from those they spend money with. Photograph: iStock

New data suggests that consumers may be becoming more proactive, more considered and less willing to accept sloppy service and questionable morals from those they spend money with. Photograph: iStock

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The pandemic is not yet over but things are looking just a little brighter, at least in this part of the world, with the vast majority of people here now either vaccinated or booked in to be vaccinated.

Much of society has re-opened and the altered landscape means researchers are starting to look more earnestly than ever at how Covid has changed us and how enduring those changes might be.

New data which is published today suggests that consumers may be becoming more proactive, more considered and less willing to accept sloppy service and questionable morals from those they spend money with.

People are living, working, spending and thinking differently now than they were in pre-pandemic times and few people believe that things are simply going to go back to the way they were when all this ends.

Consumers are, the research suggests, increasingly demanding a multichannel approach from companies no matter what size they are

Just look at what has been happening across the Irish Sea. In the middle of last month England had what was – ridiculously – dubbed Freedom Day, the day Boris Johnson’s government decreed that social-distancing rules and mandatory face masks could be dispensed with along with limits on social gatherings while nightclubs, theatres and restaurants were allowed to fully reopen.

But if Johnson thought Freedom Day would mean it was suddenly as you were across the board, he was to be disappointed as it quickly became clear t England was still a long way from returning to the way it was.

Footfall in bricks and mortar shops is significantly down on what might have been expected as is spending, with official data suggesting that English people are still saving money at levels that would suggest the scars left by the health crisis will not fade for some time yet.

Trust and reputation are also influencing buying decisions with people wanting to know if they can trust companies to ‘do the right thing’. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Trust and reputation are also influencing buying decisions with people wanting to know if they can trust companies to ‘do the right thing’. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

“Some parts of this underwhelming activity may recover in time,” said a report on the Bloomberg news wire written by Lionel Laurent and Marcus Ashworth. “But we should also take seriously the idea that something fundamental has shifted in the economy.”

It is the same story here with a similar sentiment echoed in new research published by Accenture which declares that the majority of Irish consumers are “reimagining their values and basing purchasing decisions on factors beyond price and quality”.

It is the company’s 16th annual research report based on a survey of more than 25,000 consumers across 22 countries, including Ireland, and is called Life Reimagined: mapping the motivations that matter for today’s consumers.

As you might expect while the research focuses on consumers, it is aimed at businesses and sets out to understand how companies “can capitalise on evolving consumer expectations to achieve new levels of growth and competitive agility”.

The report suggests that 50 per cent of those surveyed are “coming out of the pandemic having reimagined their behaviours and values as consumers. They have re-evaluated what is important to them in life and are increasingly focused on their personal purpose”. Accenture says this is having “a direct impact on what, how and why they buy”.

The research analysed more than 80 factors across 14 industries and found that five distinct areas are increasingly driving consumers’ purchasing decisions. The factors extend beyond price and quality and include health and safety, service and personal care, ease and convenience, product origin and trust and reputation.

Irish consumers want to know what goes into a product, how it’s produced and how far it’s been transported

What is “even more notable”, according to Accenture, is that these five factors, “which have been historically important to the specific demographic groups of Gen Z and Millennials, have now hit a tipping point and are considered critical across the full breadth of consumer demographics”.

Health and safety ranked high in importance for Irish consumers, with 59 per cent believing it is crucial for companies to prioritise health for consumers and employees in all operations with one in two Irish consumers believing that companies and brands “are just as responsible as governments for the health of societies”.

A further 41 per cent of us say we would not buy anything from a company that doesn’t provide guidance on how to behave in pandemic times.

The data also suggests that customer service and personal care are top of mind with people asking companies: “Do you remember me? Are you making my experience with your brand as personal as it can be? Are you there for me when I need you?”

It says that dealing with companies who do not make it easy to do business with them – by making wait times long or requiring a lot of online forms – is the biggest source of frustration for Irish consumers with more than three quarters highlighting it as an issue.

The telecoms companies might want to pay special attention to that particular detail.

The research also shows that while businesses increasingly like delegating responsibilities for customer care to computers and artificial intelligence, 67 per cent of us feel “more convinced that their issue was actually resolved after speaking with a human representative than when using a digital self-service tool”.

Almost a third of people say they have switched to new brands because they understand their needs better as consumers.

Consumers are, the research suggests, increasingly demanding a multichannel approach from companies no matter what size they are. A substantial 35 per cent of Irish consumers have not engaged at all with their favourite brands through telephone over the last 12 months, while 71 per cent have interacted with their favourite brands through online customer service portals.

Almost half of those who switched service providers in the last 12 months agreed that offering better digital services and support options, including mobile capabilities and a social media presence, would have kept them as a customer.

Consumers also care more about the environment, and societal and corporate responsibility and want the companies they spend with to help them make sustainable choices and support their local community.

“Irish consumers want to know what goes into a product, how it’s produced and how far it’s been transported. Sixty per cent say they are attracted to brands that source services and materials in highly ethical ways,” the report says. “Additionally, 55 per cent are attracted to doing business with brands that are environmentally friendly.”

Trust and reputation are also influencing buying decisions with people wanting to know if they can trust companies to “do the right thing”.

“Brands that support and act upon societal and cultural causes which are in common with those of their customers, such as diversity, social justice, and funding charities, is crucially important to 51 per cent of Irish consumers” while 58 per cent of consumers feel “that a business who can demonstrate they are not capitalising on the pandemic is a crucial factor when considering using their services”.

According to the managing director of Accenture’s customer strategy and consulting division, Hugh-John O’Reilly, customer demands “have fundamentally changed and it’s time for Irish businesses to respond by revisiting their strategies and setting new standards for the services they offer”.

He says Irish consumers are “embracing new experiences and forming new habits, but this comes with high expectations. They value convenience and transparency, and expect companies to not only understand their needs, but deliver on them seamlessly across all channels”.

O’Reilly believes there is a “huge opportunity for businesses to build customer loyalty by refocusing their customer engagement strategy and create personalised experiences with the right mix of digital and in-person interaction”.

While he might well be on the money when he says that the key to businesses doing well in the future is to improve their customer service, if the Pricewatch mail bag is anything to go by, very few companies are seizing the moment just yet.