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Consumer trust in industries February 2021


  • Although the effect has waned slightly, trust in many industries has still changed compared to pre-pandemic levels. 

  • The food and groceries sector still enjoys enhanced levels of trust, while airlines and holiday operators are still less trusted than they were before the crisis.

  • Social networks are the least trusted industry, with a net trust value of -49.

The crisis continues to affect consumer trust

At a time when consumer life in the UK is changing rapidly, it is important that consumers can trust the businesses that provide them with goods and services. In previous analysis we found that many sectors providing essential services gained trust during the pandemic, whilst sectors that have received bad press for their handling of the crisis have lost it. Our analysis from May of 2020 indicated that lost trust in airlines and holiday operators was related to the failure to provide refunds for cancelled holidays. 

What we don’t know yet is how lasting changes in trust brought about by the pandemic will be. So far, most sectors that have had significant changes in trust have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

For example, trust in the food and groceries sector dropped slightly to +62 in February, which is a little down on the high of +68 in May 2020, but still higher than its typical level before the pandemic, which was around +50 for the two years prior to the crisis. Net trust levels are calculated by subtracting the proportion who don’t trust a particular sector from the proportion who do. Other industries such as gas and electricity and banking are also still enjoying higher levels of trust than before the crisis. 

The contrasting sector here is the travel industry. Trust in airline and holidays operators dropped significantly at the start of the crisis and, although it has recovered somewhat, net trust has settled around the zero mark, which is lower than the trend in the two years preceding the pandemic (around +10).  Levels of trust are now similar to those in autumn 2019 when the high profile collapse of Thomas Cook happened and there were controversies surrounding the way consumers were treated, which again included delayed refunds.  

Which? has recently reported instances of customers still not having received refunds owed to them as a result of coronavirus cancellations despite the promise of refunds by the end of January 2021, while the CMA threatened Lastminute.com with legal action because of the company’s failure to fulfil legal obligations to provide refunds.

Few people trust social networks

Given the increasing importance of online platforms in consumer lives, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, we recently added new sectors to our tracker to allow us to monitor trust levels in sectors such as social networks and online platforms.

The addition of these sectors has revealed extremely low trust levels in social networks. Just 11% of consumers said that they trust social networks this month, whilst 60% do not trust them, giving a net value of -49 points. This is even lower than the persistently distrusted car dealers (-39) and estate agents (-32). 

The low levels of trust seem likely to be related to concerns about the use of personal data by social media companies. Out of a range of non-covd related issues, consumers are most likely to say they were worried about the security of their personal data (67%). Worry about this is higher even than concern about energy and food prices (63% and 58% respectively) and Brexit (57%).  

Social networks have received a great deal of negative media coverage about what they do with their users’ personal data, perhaps most notably the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Our report ‘Are you following me?’ explored consumer views on Facebook’s use of data collected via third party websites and apps. We found consumers were shocked by the extent of third-party data collection and felt there was a lack of transparency in Facebook’s communication of these methods. 

With social networks being a recent addition to the survey, we are unable to track change in trust over time in the same way as other sectors. However, in December we asked consumers whether their trust in different sectors had increased or decreased as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Just 7% said they trusted social networks more as a result of the crisis, compared to 28% who said they trusted them less. This loss of trust is of a similar magnitude to that reported for airlines and holiday operators, indicating significant impacts of the crisis on trust in social networks. 

This drop in trust could be related to the perception of misinformation related to the coronavirus and public health advice surrounding it being spread on social media platforms, with too little action taken to combat this in the eyes of many. Social media platforms face the difficult challenge of tackling misinformation while maintaining freedom of speech, but it seems likely that achieving this will be needed to gain consumer trust.

Contact us

If you have any questions or would like to find out more, please email Sophie Beesley at consumerinsight@which.co.uk 

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