A comprehensive view of consumers in Northern Ireland from Which?'s consumer insight tracker and other data sources.
During my time at Which? I’ve quickly recognised that one of our greatest strengths is understanding what consumers want and need. They are at the heart of everything we do and we’re constantly striving for change in the areas where we feel that people deserve better.
Our Consumer Insight reports are a really important step in demonstrating our knowledge base and our understanding of consumers across the UK. For the first time we’ve produced 12 reports covering Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the nine regions of England which highlight the spending habits, optimism, trust and worry of consumers in these areas.
This is a unique body of work, the first of its kind, which has allowed us to compare trends across the UK. As a result of these reports, we know that more people in Yorkshire and the Humber were satisfied with their household income (55%) than the UK average (50%); we also know that more Londoners felt financially squeezed (32%), compared to 27% on average in the UK.
These reports also highlight how the insights we gain from consumers can inform our campaigning. The statistics about connectivity and rail show us the problems people face in different areas of the country, and so it’s no coincidence that we also have major campaigns on these issues to try and make things better for consumers.
This work has been done against a backdrop of potential change with the uncertainty around Brexit a likely influence on political, social and economic landscapes. This may be particularly prominent in Northern Ireland and could have filtered into consumers’ financial perceptions, spending expectations and their level of trust in certain industries.
In 2018, greater transport powers were devolved from Whitehall to some parts of the UK, resulting in the creation of Transport for Wales, which now which now manages rail services across Wales and West England. At the regional level, this devolution led to the establishment of Transport for the North, England's first sub-national Transport Body, empowered to drive strategic transport improvements. Last year the Scottish Government also placed greater focus on consumer need, launching a consultation on the establishment of a new consumer body for Scotland in July.
We continue to build on our insights to deepen our understanding of what consumers want and need, to allow us to prioritise the areas that matter most to them. As well as being fundamental to our understanding of consumer behaviours and feelings, the insights are valuable to all organisations working across the UK who have the power to make things better for their customers. So they are an important tool for our members, supporters, policy makers and businesses alike.
This set of reports are a fine example of how our mission to make consumers more powerful drives everything we do – and always will.
Which? is the largest consumer organisation in the UK with more than 1.3 million members and supporters, over 22,000 of whom live in Northern Ireland. We exist to provide consumers with the knowledge and support they need to feel as powerful as the organisations that they deal with in their daily lives. We seek to achieve change in two ways: first, through running campaigns that make people's lives fairer, simpler and safer, and second, by providing information and advice that empowers people to understand how to achieve the best value from the most reliable products and services.
Populus, on behalf of Which?, has conducted bi-monthly surveys of more than 2,000 consumers per survey across the UK since 2012 to gauge perception of and attitudes to the consumer landscape, known as the Consumer Insight Tracker. These data are weighted to be demographically representative of the UK population, and are published on consumerinsight.which.co.uk. To understand the key consumer attitudes in 2018, Which? has boosted these data to a minimum of 1,000 consumers representative of each region of the UK. This report is based on a sample of 1,009 respondents from Northern Ireland.
We have supplemented our own data with figures from other organisations to present a more comprehensive comparison between consumer perception and consumer reality in Wales. In this report, we have made use of data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence (ESCoE), the Resolution Foundation, UK Finance and the Office of Rail and Road (ORR).
This year for the first time, Which? has published research to provide an overview of the optimism, trust and worry felt by consumers in Northern Ireland. This report offers a snapshot of how people living in Northern Ireland feel about their financial future, and the trust they have in public services and vital industries like rail and broadband.
Which?’s headline data shows that 70% of people living in Northern Ireland were happy with their household’s standard of living; however, only half (49%) were content with their income. Similarly, when assessing their financial situation, half (49%) of consumers in Northern Ireland said their position was good, while a fifth (19%) believed it to be poor. In terms of outlook for the year ahead, more than a quarter (27%) of people predicted that their finances would worsen, compared with 25% who expected them to improve. The trends of financial outlook demonstrated by those living in Northern Ireland mirrored those of the UK.
Our research also examined how people living in Northern Ireland felt about the condition of the UK economy. 42% of respondents stated that it was poor and 60% predicted that the national economy would worsen in the year ahead, a figure noticeably greater than the UK-wide average of 49%. These statistics demonstrate that people in Northern Ireland were more likely to be pessimistic about the future UK economy than the UK average. It also illustrates a disparity of outlook between personal and national finances, a tendency evidenced across the UK, which suggests that people do not necessarily equate a deteriorating UK economy with their personal finances.
We have broken down our data by demographic, which revealed that age was a key factor influencing how content consumers were with factors contributing to financial satisfaction, such as household income, living standard and level of savings. Indeed, 86% of over 65s were satisfied with their standard of living and 72% were content with their household income. This trend was mirrored by the UK figures, where 82% of over 65s were content with their standard of living and 65% in this age group were satisfied with their household income. Notably, 69% of over 65s in Northern Ireland were satisfied with their household savings, compared to just 20% of 30-49 year olds. The data also showed that more over 65s in Northern Ireland were satisfied with their savings than over 65s in the UK as a whole (63%).
Which? also mapped how and where households were expecting their spending to change in the next 12 months. Interestingly, more people in Northern Ireland expected their spending on energy to increase in the next year (43%), compared with the UK figure of 33%. Similarly, 37% of people in Northern Ireland predicted they would be paying more to run their cars, compared with 31% of UK consumers. This prediction is rooted in reality for Northern Ireland, where, according to the ONS, across 2018 average weekly expenditure on fuel was £31, while for the average UK consumer it was a third lower, at £20. Broadly, these trends suggest that more people in Northern Ireland thought that their outgoings on essential expenditure would rise in the next few months than the UK average.
Trust was another key strand of consumer insight that we sought to understand as part of our research. We asked respondents the extent to which they trusted certain public services to act in their best interests. Significantly more of those in Northern Ireland said they trusted GPs (79%), dentists (79%) and educational institutions (primary/secondary schools, 57%; colleges, 50%; universities, 43%) to act in their best interests than the UK average. This trust did not extend to the social care system, which was placed comparatively very low, with just 31% of respondents claiming to trust social care providers. However, even this low figure of 31% was higher than the UK score of 26%, which suggests that in Northern Ireland people were more likely to trust healthcare services than the average UK resident.
The trends of worry in Northern Ireland also evidence some clear deviations from the UK average figures. Three quarters (74%) of respondents in Northern Ireland were worried about fuel prices, compared with 68% of the UK. Similarly, 71% of people in Northern Ireland were worried about Brexit, compared with the UK’s 61%. These numbers illustrate that the political uncertainty in Northern Ireland, particularly surrounding the position of the Irish border in broader Brexit negotiations, may be contributing to the higher percentages of people who were worried about the cost and delivery of essential goods and services.
Across our Consumer Insight Report for Northern Ireland, we found varying degrees of similarity between the perceptions and outlooks held by the UK population and those in Northern Ireland. Using data from the ONS and ESCoE, we can establish a baseline understanding of the Northern Ireland economy as a foundation for our analysis.
Interestingly, average house prices in Northern Ireland are the second lowest in the UK, at a figure of £136,669 to the UK’s £230,776. Similarly, the price of food and general services here are lower, on average by 2.4%. In terms of the economy, Northern Ireland had a marginally lower unemployment rate than the UK at the end of 2018, at a rate of 3.8% to 4%. However its growth rate underperformed that of the UK in 2018, at 0.9% to the UK’s 1.4%. These statistics suggest that people living in Northern Ireland can expect to pay less for their general outgoings, but are experiencing slower economic growth.
Half (51%) of consumers in Northern Ireland felt that they were in a good financial state, a figure much the same as that of consumers across the UK (49%). However, this optimism was not reflected in perceptions of the UK economy, with two fifths of respondents (42%) saying that they’d describe the state of the UK’s national finances as poor.
In terms of attitudes towards the year ahead, the proportion of people who thought their finances would improve was similar to the figure for those who predicted that they would get worse (25% and 27% respectively). Meanwhile, 60% of consumers in Northern Ireland thought that the UK economy would get worse, a significantly higher figure than the UK average (49%), highlighting that more of those in Northern Ireland are pessimistic about the economic future of the UK. These statistics also articulate that many people in Northern Ireland do not necessarily associate a worsening UK economy with negative consequences for their household finances; a distinction that is reflected across the nations and regions of the UK.
Note: Does not sum to 100% due to the exclusion of ‘neither’ and ‘don’t know’
Examining the spending habits of people in Northern Ireland is an important step in understanding consumer priorities. In this section, Which? has analysed ONS Living Costs and Food Surveys for 2015/16 and 2016/17, along with ONS data on relative regional consumer price levels of goods and services for 2016, in order to assess costs and spending in Northern Ireland.
Examining the spending habits of people in Northern Ireland helps us to understand consumer priorities. In this section, Which? has analysed ONS Living Costs and Food Surveys for 2015/16 and 2016/17, along with ONS data on relative regional consumer price levels of goods and services in order to articulate the spending patterns in Northern Ireland. These statistics reveal that consumer expenditure in Northern Ireland averaged £557 a week, well below the UK average figure of £647, despite the fact that goods, services and rental and housing prices were only on average 2.4% cheaper.
The discrepancy in spending levels could be somewhat accounted for by median earnings data from the ONS, where the figure for Northern Ireland was £22,083 to the UK’s £24,006. These figures suggest that, in addition to the slightly cheaper price levels, people in Northern Ireland may have been spending less because they were earning less.
Which? analysis reveals that on average for households in Northern Ireland, the cost of housing, utilities and communication accounted for around 24% of their total expenditure, whilst transport was 15% and groceries, goods and services accounted for 35%. 20% was reserved for recreation. When looking at the actual monetary outgoings recorded by households in Northern Ireland, it appears that people living here were spending significantly less than the average for the UK on housing, with a figure of £135 to £186.
Household spending per week
Drilling further into the survey, for which households kept a detailed diary of their spending over two weeks, the figures below set out the percentage of households in Northern Ireland who were purchasing certain commodities and services in an average week.
Proportions of households spending on selected items per week
The above figures show that more households in Northern Ireland were spending on the majority of the categories outlined above than the UK average. Indeed, only expenditure on health and bank charges were lower in this nation, whilst the frequency of purchasing petrol and diesel was significantly higher. This chimes with the expectation of higher spending on the cost of running a car held by 37% of people in Northern Ireland for the months ahead.
We asked people how likely they were to increase or decrease their expenditure on certain goods and services over the next few months. While the majority of respondents intended to keep their spending the same across essential outgoings like housing and transport, there were some clear trends in what people in Northern Ireland expected to be spending more and less on in the months ahead.
The commodities that the largest proportion of people living in Northern Ireland said they were likely to increase their spending on were: gas and electricity (43%), running their car (37%) and the weekly food shop (34%); all essential outgoings where a greater proportion of people in Northern Ireland expected to spend more in the year ahead than the UK average. The data also suggests that these increases could be at the expense of socialising, eating out and making big ticket household purchases which were all areas where consumers expected to spend less.
Interestingly, the two areas where the largest proportion of consumers were likely to keep their spending the same were mobile phone payments (76%) and pension contributions (76%). The intention to maintain existing expenditure on mobile phone was mirrored by our UK-wide findings. This may be because many people will be tied to a minimum contract period before they are able to switch telecoms provider, despite the fact that many could benefit from faster broadband speeds at a cheaper price if they switched to a different package.
We asked people how concerned, if at all, they were about key issues that we believe have the potential to impact consumers. We calculated an overall figure for worry by combining the statistics on the proportion of people who are either ‘fairly’ worried or ‘very’ worried about the issues outlined below.
Overall, our findings suggest that the top worries for consumers in Northern Ireland were those around the cost and delivery of daily essentials like fuel (74%) and energy (68%). However, political uncertainty over Brexit (71%) and public spending cuts (71%) were also significant causes of concern. Interestingly, these figures suggest that there were many areas where more consumers in Northern Ireland demonstrated worry than the UK average; particularly on fuel prices and Brexit.
At the other end of the scale, around a third of respondents in Northern Ireland worried about clothing prices (31%) and the cost of electrical goods (34%). There were also clear demographic trends, with more 18-34 year olds citing concern about mortgage rates (68%) and housing costs (62%) than any other age group. Across this demographic, 46% were renters and 47% were homeowners.
Top 10 consumer worries in Northern Ireland
We asked people to set out the extent to which they trusted certain providers of public services to act in the best interest of the consumer/ recipient. The figures below show the proportion of people who said they ‘trust’ these providers of public services, ranging from education to healthcare.
The range for this set of figures was large. The health service came out on top, with GPs, hospitals and the NHS all trusted by at least seven in ten consumers in Northern Ireland. However this trust did not extend to the social care system, which was placed comparatively very low, with just 31% of respondents trusting social care providers to act in their best interests. Interestingly, the level of trust in this service is greater in Northern Ireland (31%) than in the UK on average, where only a quarter (26%) said they trust social care providers to act in the best interest of consumers. There were various other sectors which more households in Northern Ireland trusted (compared to the UK average), including GPs, dentists and educational institutions.
Percentage who trust the following:
The proportions of people trusting these public services changed based on age. Interestingly, among those aged 18-34, more trusted the college system (67%) and universities (60%) than those aged over 35 in Northern Ireland (43% and 39% respectively), whilst more of those aged over 65 were trusting of GPs (86%), but far fewer said they trust social care sector to act in their interest (19%).
In addition to understanding the perceptions of consumers in Northern Ireland relating to public markets, we also sought to examine their attitudes to certain sectors and industries, once again attempting to establish whether respondents trust these industries to act in their best interests.
The level of trust was varied across all of the sectors and industries that we surveyed opinions for. Water came out as the industry where the largest proportion of consumers felt that their interests were well respected (64%). When it came to identifying industries with the smallest trust percentages, car dealers came out worst, with just 11% of consumers in Northern Ireland saying they trusted them, closely followed by estate and lettings agents who enjoyed the trust of just 14% of respondents.
Percentage who trust the following:
As the water industry was the most trusted across the industries surveyed, we have compared trust scores across the four nations of the UK:
Percentage who trust the water industry:
Our findings around trust are interesting as they suggest that (in addition to other factors like price, level of industry regulation, and familiarity with the purchase process) consumers might be less trusting of transactions they make with industries where there is an imbalance of knowledge between the consumer and provider. For example, a car dealer is likely to know far more about the performance and value of a vehicle they are selling than the average consumer, just as an estate agent may know more about a property and the process of renting or buying a home. This is where Which? seeks to provide consumers with the information they need to deal more confidently in these transactions.
Identifying trends of financial difficulty is a key output from Which?’s Consumer Insight Tracker1. In our measure there are five signs of financial difficulty that we monitor, ranging from the least severe (cutting back only) through to the most severe (defaulting on a loan, bill, mortgage, or rent payment). As such, Which? asked people whether their household had experienced some form of financial squeeze within the past few months which might have necessitated them taking one of these actions, in order to reduce the pressure. We then supplemented our own survey results with the findings of the Resolution Foundation’s ‘Low Pay Britain 2018’ report to add context of the extent to which respondents’ experience of squeeze forms part of a broader trend of financial difficulty in Northern Ireland.
This year’s results showed that more than a quarter (28%) of respondents in Northern Ireland were feeling financially squeezed and of those, a third (32%) took a loan, credit card or borrowed from friends and family in order to balance their books. Breaking down these figures by age revealed that more than a third (37%) of 18-29 year olds had experienced financial difficulty, compared to just 9% of over 65s. Of those who had experienced difficulty, 30% of 18-29 year olds had defaulted on a loan, bill or housing payment, compared to 5% of over 65s.
The figures below are taken from our Consumer Insight Tracker data on financial difficulty and demonstrate how those experiencing financial squeeze sought to reduce the pressure.
The figures for people living in Northern Ireland who had resorted to the above means of overcoming financial difficulty were the same as those found for the UK as a whole, as was the proportion of people who we identified as being financially squeezed.
The 5 levels of financial difficulty
Note: These are proportions for those experiencing at least one form of financial difficulty, not overall prevalence.
1. The Financial Distress Index estimates the extent to which the households in an area are experiencing financial difficulty relative to all other areas. Areas are ranked out of 100, where 100 is most distressed and 1 is least, and these figures articulate how financially squeezed respondents are feeling.
Which? surveyed 14,138 people between January and December 2018 and asked them about their financial experiences. The most severe financial difficulty they had faced in the past month determined their 'Financial Squeeze' group.
Estimates of financial distress were then calculated for each 2011 Output Area Classification group, then extrapolated down to individual output areas. Averages at the higher level geographies were calculated and weighted by Census 2011 household population estimates.
Please note these statistics are estimates, and are not directly measured from the survey.
We used our Consumer Insight Tracker data on financial difficulty, together with the ONS’s 2011 Output Area Classification data, to estimate the extent to which households in each constituency and region were experiencing financial difficulty relative to other areas. We also sought to understand whether the trends of financial strain could be explained by the financial realities of people living in Northern Ireland. We did this by analysing the figures for median earnings and loan data provided by the ONS2 and UK Finance3 for constituencies in Northern Ireland, where the median figure was £22,083 compared with £24,006 for the UK as a whole, while the ratio of loans to average earnings was 4.7%, compared with 3.9%.
It's worth noting that Foyle, in Northern Ireland, has among the highest ratios of loans to earnings across the UK at 6.7%, while the five constituencies with the lowest median earnings in Northern Ireland rank in the bottom 10% across the whole of the UK as identified in the table below.
Our analysis shows that two of the constituencies with the lowest figures for median earnings (Belfast North and Foyle) were also those where constituents were most likely to feel financially squeezed. However, despite Belfast East and Belfast South sitting in the rankings for the highest median earnings, they also appear in the rankings for highest squeeze. This suggests that although earnings are a good barometer of financial position, factors like geography and the pressures associated with urban living (i.e higher costs of goods and services) also influence the level of financial strain people feel.
2. ONS ASHE annual gross earnings 2018 (interim)
3. UK Finance data on outstanding £ values of personal loans by postcode sector, aggregated into parliamentary constituencies, Q2, 2018
Financial difficulty for UK Constituencies in Northern Irleand
Most financial difficulty:
Least financial difficulty:
Which? campaigns consistently on a number of issues as part of our mission to uncover consumer detriment and push for positive change. As a result of our work, we can share insights into the unique experience of Northern Irish consumers with both their broadband coverage and the rail service.
As part of our Fix Bad Broadband campaign, we offer consumers a broadband speed-checker tool, inviting people to identify their service speed and enabling us to analyse the consumer experience of broadband connections across the UK.
The UK government has identified a download speed of 10Mbps as the minimum speed required to fully participate in digital society. The new broadband universal service obligation (USO) will provide consumers with a legal right to request a broadband connection with a download speed of at least 10Mbps4. Ofcom has responsibility for implementing the USO, and it should be in place by 2020.
Ofcom’s broadband speed measures are the maximum possible at residential premises, with the data supplied to Ofcom by providers. Which?’s own data for 4,600 users of our speed-checker across Northern Ireland in 2018 shows that for those consumers, speeds were much more likely to fall below the 10Mbps USO threshold.
Indeed 37% of user tests fell short of this speed level. Particularly poor download speeds were faced by consumers living in Fermanagh and South Tyrone (61% of tests less than 10Mbps) and Mid-Ulster (50% less than 10Mbps), whilst those located in North Down, and Belfast South were much better served, but even then 24% and 27% of user tests respectively fell below the USO level.
Proportion of consumer broadband speed tests achieving 10Mbps or above
Which? publishes an annual Rail Satisfaction Survey, a poll that seeks consumer insight on a range of factors affecting their train travel, from punctuality to seat availability which contribute to an overall customer score5.
In our 2019 survey, Translink NI Railway ranked in the top four of train service providers, with a customer score of 62%. Across the nine factors contributing to this overall score, the provider received four stars for punctuality, reliability and customer service, while the condition of its carriages garnered a five-star response.
According to monitoring data available from NI Translink, 96% of its services were on time in 2018. This compares to customer perception, where 86% of customers were satisfied with the punctuality of Translink services, suggesting that Translink could do more to make clear how and when its services are going to be delayed.
Which? will continue to champion improvements in consumer experience through our Train Pain campaign, building on the calls we set out in our super-complaint of 2015 for all passengers to be treated as consumers; with information, reliability and recourse available for all.
To find out more, visit our Consumer Insight page at consumerinsight.which.co.uk, where you can access our latest research on a range of issues, and detailed data on consumer attitudes, perceptions and concerns broken down to the constituency level across the UK.
4. The minimum technical standard for connections made under the USO will be: minimum download speed of 10Mbps; minimum upload speed of 1Mbps; additional quality parameters: medium response times, a minimum data cap pf 100GB and a contention rate of 50:1 (i.e. a maximum of 50 users share one bandwidth)
5. The customer score is based on satisfaction with the brand and likelihood to recommend. Satisfaction and recommendation contribute 50% each to the overall customer score, and a respondent must answer both questions for their answers to contribute towards a customer score. For both satisfaction and recommendation, we apply a weighting to each response.