A comprehensive view of consumers from the South East of England using 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 over 1.3 million members and supporters, more than 220,000 of whom are based in the South East. We operate as an independent, apolitical, social enterprise working for all consumers and funded solely by our commercial ventures. We receive no government money, public donations, or other fundraising income. Which?’s mission is to make individuals as powerful as the organisations they have to deal with in their daily lives by empowering them to make informed decisions and by campaigning to make people’s lives fairer, simpler and safer.
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 and nation of the UK. This report is based on a sample of 1,837 respondents from the South East.
We have supplemented our own data with figures from other organisations to present a more comprehensive comparison between the trends identified in our consumer tracker data and the facts around earnings, economic growth and unemployment. 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).
The South East of England is the region of the UK with the greatest proportion of Which? members and supporters, a figure totalling over 220,000 of our base of 1.3 million people. Therefore, this report illustrates the landscape of consumer concern, trust and optimism in a region where interest in Which?’s work is well demonstrated. This means that the comparisons with UK average figures are an interesting opportunity to see whether people in the South East hold different financial outlooks, concerns and predictions than those of the average consumer.
Our research showed that 68% of people living in the South East were happy with their standard of living, while 48% were satisfied with their income. From this data, age arose as a factor impacting contentedness, with 65% of over 65s satisfied with their income and 84% with their standard of living. These figures were broadly reflective of the UK-wide averages.
Beyond these headline indicators of satisfaction, Which? also asked people in the South East to describe their financial situation. 47% responded that their household finances were good, while a fifth (22%) said they were in poor condition. Respondents were similarly asked about their expectations of whether their finances would get better or worse in the year ahead. Across the UK, we observed a trend where the proportion of people who expected their personal finances to improve (26% UK average) was markedly similar to the proportion who expected their position to worsen (25%). However, the South East deviates slightly from this pattern, showing a greater tendency toward financial optimism with 29% predicting improvements, compared to the 24% who believe they’ll be worse off in 12 months’ time.
Our research also examined how people in the South East felt about the UK economy as a whole. 38% stated that the national economy was poor and 45% of respondents expected that the economy would worsen in the next 12 months, compared to a fifth (20%) who thought it would get better. This illustrates the fact that people living in the South East were more optimistic about the future of their own finances than they were about those of the UK as a whole. This tendency was evidenced across the UK, suggesting that consumers do not necessarily equate a deteriorating national economy with an impact on their personal finances, despite the likely impact that this would have.
Our survey also sought to unpick the expectations held by consumers in the South East in relation to how they believed their spending habits might change in the year ahead. A third (32%) thought they would be spending more on energy, while 27% thought that they would pay more to run their cars. In terms of how this increasing expenditure might be balanced by households, a quarter (27%) intended to spend less on socialising and eating out, while a fifth (22%) expected to reduce their spending on big ticket household items.
Beyond spending intentions, we also asked people in the South East how worried they were about the cost and delivery of essential commodities, services and events. Fuel prices (67%), public spending cuts (65%) and energy prices (64%) were where most consumers worried. At the other end of the scale, only a quarter (25%) were worried about the price of clothes and 27% were worried about the cost of electrical goods. This research ties in closely to the questions that Which? asked around trust, revealing that the industry the largest proportion of those in the South East trust to act in the consumer interest was the food and grocery sector (60%).
Across this report, we have identified a relatively high degree of similarity between the perceptions and outlooks held by UK consumers and those in the South East region. Using data from the ONS and ESCoE, we can establish a baseline understanding of the South East economy as a foundation for our analysis. The unemployment rate in the region was 3.1% at the end of 2018, noticeably lower than the UK figure of 4%. However, the economic growth of the region in 2018 fell slightly short of the UK’s rate at a figure of 1.3% to 1.4%. The relatively similar financial position of the South East to the UK may explain why many of the figures around consumer perception of their financial position mirror those of the UK average.
When asked, half (47%) of people living in the South East felt that their financial situation was good, a proportion very close to the UK figure of 49%, while a fifth (22%) felt their finances to be poor. Across much of the UK, the proportion of respondents who said that they expected their financial situation to improve (26%) was similar to the proportion who thought it would worsen (25%). However, the South East displayed a slight deviation from this trend, where 29% of respondents expected their finances to improve, and 24% expected their situation to get worse, demonstrating a slightly greater prevalence of optimism in the region.
The data also suggested that people living in the South East were somewhat less pessimistic about the future UK economy, with six percentage points separating the net scores of people in the region who thought the UK economy would deteriorate, compared to that of the UK average.
When breaking the results down by age, more granular trends of pessimism emerge for the South East. For example, 64% of over 65s thought that their finances were good, compared to 40% of 35-64 year olds. When examining outlook by age, optimism was highest amongst 18-29 year olds (48%), and lower amongst over 65s (9%), perhaps due to the fact that the younger demographic might expect career and salary progression, while over 65s are likely to have contributed to a pension throughout their working lives and therefore have a realistic assessment of their financial future.
Note: Does not sum to 100% due to the exclusion of ‘neither’ and ‘don’t know’
Establishing the spending habits of consumers in the South East 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 articulate the demands of costs and spending in the South East
These statistics reveal that consumer expenditure in the South East averaged £803 a week, significantly above the UK average figure of £647, while prices on goods, services and rental and housing were on average 1.5% higher than those of the UK as a whole.
Which? analysis reveals that on average, households in the South East spent around 26% of all their expenditure on housing, utilities and communication, 14% on transport, 33% on groceries, goods and services and 19% on recreation. When looking at the actual monetary outgoings recorded by consumers in the South East, people living here were spending more across all areas of expenditure, particularly on groceries and food, and recreation.
Breaking down spending on housing further, average weekly expenditure on rent in the South East was £133.91, compared to a UK average of £113.85 and the London figure of £192.80. This suggests that, perhaps due to its commuter links into London, consumers in the South East are spending more on their rent than the average UK figure.
In addition to analysing spending habits, we also set out to understand how likely consumers in the South East were to increase or decrease their expenditure on certain goods and services over the next few months. While a large proportion said they were likely to keep their spending the same in areas like public transport and housing, a quarter (27%) were expecting to reduce their spending on socialising, eating out and takeaways.
Energy is the commodity that the largest proportion of people in the South East said they were expecting to increase their spending on (32%), followed by the cost of running a car (27%). Breaking down this data by demographic, more over 65s were likely to increase their spending on energy (40%), compared to 24% of 18-29 year olds.
Interestingly, two areas where a large proportion of consumers were likely to keep their spending the same were mobile phone payments (78%) and broadband (78%). The intention to maintain existing expenditure in these areas is mirrored by our UK-wide findings. This is likely to be because many consumers 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.
The trends identified in the South East match those of the average UK consumer when it comes to identifying the most likely areas that consumers were expecting to spend both more and less in the year ahead.
Beyond tracking financial outlook and intentions for managing personal finances into the next year, we also sought to pinpoint the industries and public services that consumers in the South East felt could be trusted to act in the consumer interest.
Across the UK, there was a clear threshold of trust in the health service, with 75% of people saying they trust their general practitioner (GP) and 73% trusting the NHS. This trend is mirrored by those living in the South East, where three quarters (75%) said they trusted GPs, the NHS (72%) and hospitals (74%). However, this trust in the healthcare system did not extend to social care, where just a quarter (26%) felt that this sector could be trusted to work in the consumer interest, a figure decreasing to one in five (19%) among over 65s.
We also found that 60% of people in the South East trusted the food industry and 55% trusted the domestic appliances sector. Conversely, car dealerships and estate agents sit lowest in the range with trust figures of just 9% and 10% respectively. This cynicism toward the car market was shared by the UK as a whole, with an identical 9% believing that this sector is worthy of their trust.
Most and least trusted public services and industries:
With the exception of the water industry’s lower trust rating, the trends set out above largely reflect those across the UK, with a high proportion of trust across healthcare sectors matching a significant scepticism held towards industries like car dealers and estate agents. This suggests 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.
In addition to how people felt about their own finances in relation to their income and standard of living, Which? also looked into broader trends of consumer concern across the South East. The figures suggest that the majority of people living here were worried about fuel prices (67%), public spending cuts (65%) and energy prices (64%).
At the other end of the scale, fewer consumers in the South East were concerned over the pricing of more discretionary items. For example only a quarter (25%) were worried about the price of clothing, a figure identical to that in the UK as a whole. When breaking down the results by demographic, more 18-34 year olds in the South East were likely to be worried about mortgage rates (61%, compared to an average of 50% for the region), while 55% of 18-29 year olds were worried about the ease of travel around Europe. Meanwhile, more over 65s were worried about the interest rate on their savings (71%) and UK immigration (58%).
Top 5 consumer worries in the South East
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 identify the extent to which respondents’ experience of feeling financially squeezed forms part of a broader trend of financial difficulty in the South East.
Our figures suggest that 30% of people in the South East were feeling squeezed, a statistic decreasing by more than half to 14% for over 65s. These trends of difficulty mirror the figures for the UK as a whole. When contextualising these findings with the Resolution Foundation’s report, 19% of workers in this region were earning less than the Living Wage2, compared to the UK average figure of 23%.
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 results for the South East suggest that people here were more likely to arrange some sort of borrowing (perhaps via a bank loan or from family or friends) than the UK average, as a means of overcoming 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.
2. By Living Wage, we refer to the voluntary rate set by the Living Wage Foundation as a minimum standard to cover living costs rather than the government's compulsory 'National Living Wage’. At the time of writing, UK rates are £9/hr and £10.55/hr in London.
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 squeeze 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 the South East, by analysing the figures for median earnings and personal unsecured loan data provided by the ONS3 and UK Finance4 respectively.
In the South East, the median figure for annual earnings was £26,250 compared to £24,006 for the UK as a whole, while the proportion of personal loans to average earnings was 3.8%, compared to 3.9% for the UK as a whole.
Our analysis shows that two of the constituencies with the lowest median earnings also have the highest ratio of loans to earnings (Bexhill and Battle and Bognor Regis and Littlehampton). However, the fact that none of the five most squeezed constituencies appear in the lowest earnings or highest loan rankings suggest that other factors, such as geography, have an impact on the level of financial pressure that consumers in the South East feel. This is supported by the fact that Southampton, Oxford, Portsmouth, Crawley and Slough are all densely populated, urban areas (which often involve a higher cost of living), explaining why constituencies located here are registering higher levels of financial squeeze. We publish our consumer tracker estimates annually for UK parliamentary constituencies.
3. ONS ASHE annual gross earnings 2018 (interim)
4. UK Finance data on outstanding £ values of personal loans by postcode sector, aggregated into parliamentary constituencies, Q2, 2018
Map 1: Financial difficulty for Westminster Constituencies in the South East
Map 2: Most financially squeezed constituency, Slough
Map 3: Least financially squeezed constituency, Meon Valley
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 consumers in the South East 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 10Mbps5. Ofcom has responsibility for implementing the USO, and it should be in place by 2020.
Our map of best and worst coverage shows that those living in large towns in urban areas in the South East, like Crawley and Brighton, enjoy a better level of coverage while more rural constituencies, like Chesham and Amersham, experience poorer coverage. However, the South East also presented some results that bucked this national rural/urban split, with large urban towns and cities like Maidstone, Ashford and Canterbury experiencing poorer coverage.
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 score6.
For train operating companies providing services in the South East, our survey yielded a customer score of 50% for London Overground, followed by 41% for Southeastern, 36% for Thameslink and 34% for Southern. Furthermore, data available from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) gives insight into data on train cancellations for consumers in the South East, where in 2017/18, 3% of London Overground trains were cancelled, compared to 3.1% of Southeastern services and 6% of those operated by Govia Thameslink.
In addition to our Rail Satisfaction Survey, in 2018 Which? also undertook an analysis of two months of rail regulator data and found that fewer than half of rail passengers were satisfied with how their complaints were dealt with by train companies. Of the train operating companies who provide services within the South East, 28% of Southeastern passengers were satisfied with how their complaint was handled, compared to 20% of Govia Thameslink passengers, which shows how different train companies serving the same region are providing complaints handling experiences of vastly differing qualities.
Both the cancellation rates set out by the ORR and our data on satisfaction with complaints handling explain how the rail industry still has some way to go in recognising passengers as consumers, as we called for in our super-complaint of 2015. This is why we will continue to call for a railway that works for passengers and not just the industry through our Train Pain campaign.
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.
5. 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)
6. 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.