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Jan 17, 2012

Essential: for big retailers, price and service are a key problem

New Essential Report data backs what we know about the changes in Australian retail, but with an interesting age-related twist.

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Younger Australians are saving more, spending less and shopping more online but it is older Australians who are fleeing major retailers, according to polling by Essential Report.

Last week Essential asked a series of questions about spending habits. The results appear to confirm several current retail trends, but age difference appears a key issue in the retreat of shoppers from major retailers.

While all voters were broadly equal in those saying they were saving more, or saving less, compared to last year (28% said saving more, 33% saving less), younger people were far more likely to say they were saving more than last year, with 41% of voters under 35 saying they were saving more compared to 29% saving less; only 19% of people over 55 said they were saving more; 40% said less. Those in full-time work tended to be saving more as well, they said.

Voters also strongly indicated they were spending more on food and groceries (60% said more, 10% said less), while spending less on clothing and electrical goods (20% more to 38% less) and entertainment (similar figures). Unsurprisingly, spending on gas and electricity was also strongly up, according to voters, but telephone and internet services spending had also increased, people said, by 38% to 11%. They also said they’re shopping less at major retail stores (10% more, 36% less) and less at major shopping centres (11%, 32%) while shopping at local shopping centres had held up, and shopping on the internet had grown (42% up, 18% less).

The shift online has been led by 18-24-year-olds, 20% of whom said they were shopping online a lot more, and 25-34-year-olds, 16% of whom said they were shopping online a lot more. Over 55s, however, were more loath to go online and 20% of seniors actually said they were shopping online a lot less.

And consistent with what we know about the direction of retail, voters identified price and service standards as areas of dissatisfaction with major retailers. The range of products available at major retailers, and the quality of goods, were both rated satisfactory by voters, with little variability across demographics: 55% said they were satisfied with range and only 14% said they weren’t; 46% said they were satisfied with quality and only 16% not.

But more voters were unhappy with prices at major retailers than happy — 34% to 30% — and 36% said they were unhappy with service levels, compared to 31% happy. Older voters in particular appear very unhappy with prices and services. Only 18% of seniors and 24% of 55-64-year-olds were happy with prices, and more than a third of both were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with them, and there were similar figures for service — in fact, 50% of seniors were unhappy with standards of service at major retailers, and 43% of 55-64-year-olds.

This has had a direct impact on shopping behaviour: 46% of seniors and 47% of 55-64-year-olds were shopping either a little or a lot less at major retailers, and were also staying away from major shopping centres as well.

Seniors and middle-aged people tend to account for much less of the overall retail spend than younger people but in this case it appears major retailers can’t win either way: younger shoppers who profess not to be overly fussed about issues such as price or service at big retailers are moving onto the internet in droves, while older shoppers, more resistant to moving online, are being turned off major retailers by poor service and high prices.

Another interesting absence from the results is any marked difference between men and women, despite the alleged difference in attitude and interest in shopping. If there’s any difference, women are a little more likely than men to have reduced their shopping at major retailers in the past year, and a little more likely to have shopped more online.

There of course are all stated preferences, rather than revealed preferences: people’s perceptions of their own consumer behaviour over the past 12 months may have been influenced by what they’ve been told by a media keen to emphasise the gloom and doom of retailing. But it appears that it’s not all about the high dollar and the internet: old-fashioned things such as quality in-store service are also a problem for our ever-complaining big retailers.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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