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Consumer spending throughout COVID-19


How the pandemic has shifted our spending habits, and where to from here.

As restrictions start to ease across the state, a Newcastle Permanent-led study into its customer behaviour throughout COVID-19 has revealed how spending habits in the Hunter region have shifted.

“Overall, spending is down slightly when compared against the same time last year, with the most impacted categories being airlines, travel services, lodging and vehicle rentals,” said James Cudmore, Newcastle Permanent Chief Customer and Product Officer.

“However, across the Hunter region we’ve also seen some interesting customer spending trends and spikes occurring across different categories, too.”

The bulk buying trend

As the threat of the pandemic began to materialise Australian visited supermarkets in large numbers, stockpiling toilet paper and other essential items.

“Although consumers were assured supermarkets would remain open, our region wasn’t immune to the bulk-buying that gripped most of Australia and that was an interesting trend to watch,” says Cudmore.

“When COVID first hit, we had a 60% increase in supermarket spend, but that’s now down to 40% which shows us that consumers are becoming more comfortable and they’re seeing supplies on the shelves, realising that they’re not going to be left high and dry. There was also a 26% rise in pharmacy spend, as consumers stocked up on cold and flu medicine.”

Feathering the nest

“As consumers stayed home during the pandemic, spending shifted significantly towards items that help us ‘feather our nest’,” said Cudmore.

“Department stores saw a 66% jump in spend, while retail spend on electronics goods soared by 111% as consumers purchased laptops, iPads and mobile phones in order to socialise and stay in touch with friends and family,” he explained. “And we saw a spike in customer spending on appliances such as freezers and home office equipment, as many people shifted to working remotely.”

Stores in the home improvement category, such as Bunnings, have also been big winners throughout the COVID period. “Home improvement spend has increased by 71%, which suggests all those home projects we never get around to doing are actually being ticked off for a change,” said Cudmore.

The other interesting spikes were direct marketing (up 74%) and subscriptions to wholesale clubs offering discounted goods or bulk buys. “This is normally not a strong category in our reports but spend during the COVID period for websites like Catch.com.au was up 65%,” said Cudmore.

Interestingly, spend on streaming services across the Hunter region in particular remained steady. “That could be a reflection of our customers probably already having subscriptions to Netflix, Stan, those other types of streaming services; our data shows that spend on these just remained a constant.”

Industries most impacted

Travel was one of Newcastle Permanent’s customers’ strongest categories in 2019, but post-COVID this category has seen a sharp decline. “Travel is down domestically with a 30% decrease in car rentals, 80% decrease in airline bookings – which includes international flight bookings too – and an 80% decrease in payments to travel agents,” says Cudmore.

And, although many restaurants have pivoted to offer takeaway food services during the pandemic, there have also been wide closures of eateries and a decrease within the hospitality category. The entertainment category has flat-lined, and surprisingly online clothes shopping has suffered a dip.

“Even though clothing stores shut, the majority had shifted to an online model and the uptake of apparel spend wasn’t quite as high as we’d anticipated,” said Cudmore.

The beauty industry sharply dropped off, as did professional services – lawyers, accountants and financial advisors. “The transportation category also dropped off, with a 76% decrease in public transport spend and a 26% decrease in spend on fuel,” he added, “due to the fact that people were working from home and commuting less. But I anticipate we’ll start to see an upward trend in those areas now that restrictions starting to ease.”

Source: NPBS customer spend report: YoY April to May 2020.

The new normal

How might the pandemic shape our spending habits going forward? It’s obviously hard to predict but Cudmore believes it’ll be some time before we see spending return to normal.

“We can expect domestic spend will start to return to some normality as COVID restrictions continue to lift, and we’ll start to see things like car rentals, hotels and travel-related spend slowly pick back up, but at the moment international spend is completely deflated; we’re not seeing people make purchases abroad or our customers travelling anywhere internationally,” he explains.

In terms of a new normal, could the pandemic have changed Australians in terms of the lifestyles we lead or how we interact with one another?

“I suspect it’ll take a little while for consumers to feel completely comfortable attending large crowd gatherings, so people who used to spend money in that experience category – concerts and shows and so forth – may not want to do those things at least for a while,” he predicted. “Even with restrictions easing, it’s not a magic wand returning everything to normal.”

Will we become savers rather than spenders?

Prior to the pandemic Newcastle Permanent’s data indicated a trend towards customers wanting to save more, and that’s been accelerated during the past few months, said Cudmore.

“Our customers were wanting to plan ahead more, pay off their home loans faster,– and I think that desire to have a nest egg is going to continue to be the trend as people don’t know right now what the future holds.”

The data also indicates how our customer spend is changing–spending less often, but spending more when they do.

“Our average ‘ticket size’ has increased slightly, meaning our customers are potentially making less transactions, but they’re spending more per transaction when they do shop,” explained Cudmore. “Going forward, that could mean we see a shift in consumers planning more – doing one large grocery shop instead of 10 trips to the supermarket over the course of a week or a fortnight. We may also become more comfortable with online spending as opposed to going out and visiting bricks and mortar stores.”

A move towards sustainability and self-sufficiency may also continue, predicted Cudmore.

“We saw this shift start with the bushfires as Australians started to become more mindful, thinking about how their spending impacted their local community and the nation as a whole. We may see consumers wanting to spend more on Australian-made goods.”

What can businesses learn from the pandemic?

The biggest learning for business, big and small, during this pandemic has been the need to be able to quickly adapt to an ever-changing environment. As the lockdown progressed, many businesses shifted quickly. They revised their business model and pivoted their operations to continue to be able to serve the needs of their customers.

“Going forward for businesses to continue to adapt and listen to their market, so they can continue to meet the needs of their customers.”

Source: NPBS customer spend report: YoY April to May 2020. This article is intended to provide general information of an educational nature only. This information has been prepared without taking into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. Information in this article is current as at the date of publication.

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