Consumers in Scotland 2021

In our consumer insight report for Scotland we examine the financial circumstances, optimism, trust and worry of Scottish consumers and explore how they feel about some of the most important consumer issues of the day.

Foreword


Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, a powerful force for good, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. To achieve this, and to truly represent consumers’ interests, we need to get to the heart of the issues that people are facing; what they are experiencing, how they are behaving, and what they are thinking.  Only by understanding the challenges that consumers face, can we seek to develop policy solutions that will make their lives better.

Across the UK, consumers’ lives are changing rapidly. What we can buy, how we buy it and how we pay have all been transformed in the past decade by digitisation, as have the ways we connect with each other, bringing huge benefits. Our lives have evolved even more radically in the past year as we adjusted to life under lockdown, including a growing consumer interest in sustainability. Markets move fast and policymakers need insight that can keep pace.

Executive summary


The COVID-19 pandemic has affected how we work, how we socialise and, especially, how we act as consumers. The income we have to spend, what we can buy, and the way in which we make our purchases have all been radically transformed. In this report, Which? investigates the circumstances of Scottish consumers, and explores how their attitudes and behaviours have changed in the past twelve months. 

The pandemic has led to acute financial difficulty for some consumers and, although the number of households in Scotland cutting back on spending or taking payment holidays is lower than the UK average, many have struggled over the past year. 7% of Scots told us they had missed at least one bill, loan or housing payment in the preceding month, while 37% had needed to make adjustments to cover essential spending, such as cutting back, borrowing from friends and family or taking out credit. These statistics would no doubt be worse without support measures introduced by the UK Government and regulators as 10% of consumers told us they had taken a payment holiday during the crisis, with more than half of these taking multiple payment holidays.

About Which?


Which? is the UK’s consumer champion. As an organisation we’re not for profit - a powerful force for good, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. We’re the independent consumer voice that provides impartial advice, investigates, holds businesses to account and works with policymakers to make change happen. We fund our work mainly through member subscriptions, we’re not influenced by third parties and we buy all the products that we test. 

Financial wellbeing and consumer confidence


The pandemic has greatly affected incomes and consumer spending, but the impact of this has been felt unevenly across households. Since some sectors of the economy, such as retail, hospitality and recreation and culture, have been hit particularly hard by the crisis then workers in these sectors have been more likely to lose income. Further, some households have reduced their spending due to restrictions or because they have felt less safe outside of home, while others have spent more because of the crisis. For example, families on a low income are more likely to have had greater expenditure.

To examine the overall impact of these income and spending changes on consumer finances, we use various measures of the incidence of financial difficulty. The first is the proportion of people who report having missed a payment on a bill, loan or credit, or housing cost in the last month. In our survey in December 2020, 7% of Scottish consumers reported having missed at least one payment. The rate is higher among those who are furloughed, on reduced hours or enforced leave due to the coronavirus crisis and among lower income households (up to £21,000 per annum). Overall, the proportion of consumers missing a payment in Scotland is not significantly different than in England or Wales, although the rate is significantly lower in Northern Ireland.

A less severe measure of financial difficulty is whether households need to make adjustments to cover essential spending, such as cutting back, borrowing or using savings. 37% of Scottish consumers made at least one adjustment to cover essential spending such as utility bills, housing costs, groceries, school supplies and medicines in the month prior to the survey. This figure is in line with Wales and Northern Ireland, but lower than in England, where 44% reported having made such an adjustment. 

There are obvious concerns that the crisis will result in substantially greater levels of financial difficulty. The circumstances of those in financial difficulty are likely to have become more acute as the crisis has continued and qualitative research (conducted by Blue Marble Research, on behalf of Which? and others) has found that households feeling the effect of job losses are increasingly worried about keeping up with bills. However, our measures of financial difficulty in the UK nations in December 2020 are similar to the levels found across the UK as a whole before the pandemic. This indicates that while some households have been worse affected by the pandemic than others, the government support measures such as payment holidays and the job retention scheme have so far succeeded in preventing widespread increases in financial difficulty among the population as a whole.  

 

In Scotland, 10% of consumers reported taking a payment holiday during the crisis, with more than half of these taking more than one. This is broadly in line with consumers in Wales and Northern Ireland, but significantly less than the 14.5% in England who took a payment holiday. It is unclear what the reason behind this is as rates of furlough are similar across the nations and so is spending on mortgages as a proportion of household income. In any case, it is clear that these payment holidays have provided vital support for many families as we have previously found that 40% of people who took a payment holiday would have been otherwise unable to make all their payments.

In general, there are greater differences in the financial impact of the coronavirus crisis on households within countries than between them. This uneven impact is demonstrated by the change in household savings in the past year. A third (34%) of Scots said they were able to save more money over the course of the pandemic, whilst 29% saved less than usual. Differences between households are seen at all levels of income, although it has been more common for higher income households to be able to save more. Almost a fifth (19%) of households with an income of up to £14,000 have been able to save more since the pandemic, compared to half (51%) of households with an income of £69,000 or more.

 

Consumer spending drives the economy and for economic growth to recover quickly those consumers who now have more savings will need to have the confidence to spend them. Inevitably though, the pandemic has shaken consumer confidence. Across the whole of the UK, confidence in the future of the UK economy, which had been recovering from Brexit uncertainty before the pandemic, dropped drastically in March. At the outset of the crisis just 7% thought the economy would improve over the next 12 months and 85% thought it would get worse, giving a net confidence of -78 points. This compared to -17 just a month earlier in February. Since then, it has seen a bumpy recovery, with improvements corresponding to the decline in infection rates over the summer and announcements of vaccine approvals, but falling following increases in cases and fresh restrictions and lockdowns. 

People have more confidence in their own future household finances and this has been more stable than their confidence in the economy as a whole. However, it is still the case that more people are pessimistic about their future household finances than are optimistic, and confidence remains some way below its pre-pandemic level.

Focussing on the nations of the UK, individuals’ confidence in their future household finances does not differ significantly between the nations, but confidence in the UK economy does as Scottish and Northern Irish consumers are more pessimistic. Just 11% of Scots said they thought the UK economy would get better over the next year, and 76% thought it would get worse, giving a net confidence level of -65. This compares to -47 in England, -54 in Wales and -63 in Northern Ireland. 

 

This pessimistic outlook in Scotland could be related to a number of factors. For example, less confidence in the public health approach, a less favourable outlook on Westminster economic policy, or greater pessimism about the impact of Brexit on the economy. 

With regard to the latter, the long-term effects of Brexit are the biggest (non-Covid) worry of Scottish consumers and concern was significantly higher in Scotland than the average for the rest of the UK. 75% of Scottish consumers said they were very or a little worried about Brexit compared to just 59% in England. A higher proportion of Scottish consumers were also worried about food safety standards, an issue that has been linked to Brexit trade deals.

Differences across the nations for other consumer worries were mostly not statistically significant. Data security was given as the biggest worry for the UK as a whole, while relative to previous years more people are worried about the interest rate on their savings and fewer are worried about the prices of food, energy and fuel, although these concerns have fallen most for fuel and least for food. This is likely a consequence of changing household expenditure as a result of the crisis and the resulting increase in savings for some households. The high levels of worry about data security may well reflect the widespread disempowerment and lack of control that consumers feel about their personal data and low levels of trust in some of the largest digital firms, which we explore in the next section.

Brexit was the most common worry for Scottish consumers, with three-quarters reporting being concerned about this
75%
of Scottish consumers were worried about Brexit

Consumer trust in business


It is important for consumers to feel they can trust the industries that provide them with goods and services, especially at a time when consumption habits have changed rapidly as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

We asked consumers how much they trust ten of the largest industries that they interact with regularly and found that levels of trust vary dramatically across industries. 66% of Scottish consumers said that they trust the water industry quite a lot or a great deal, whilst just 6% said they don’t trust them very much or at all, giving a net trust value of +60 percentage points. Trust in the food and groceries sector is similarly high. 

At the opposite end of the scale there is deep mistrust in social networks, such as Facebook, with a rating of -59. In part this might be due to deep unease about how people’s personal data is collected and used, but it may also reflect a failure to protect users from exposure to online harms. For example, in previous research nearly one in ten people told us they had fallen victim to a scam advert on social media.

 

Although the order of most to least trusted sectors is broadly the same in Scotland as the rest of the UK, Scottish consumers tend to be less trusting, as shown in Figure 5. For example, trust in banking, gas and electricity and online marketplaces is significantly lower in Scotland than in any of the other UK nations. 

The only industry for which consumer trust is higher in Scotland is the water sector, as the average for the UK is brought down by lower trust in England. It is known that one factor associated with greater levels of trustworthiness is benevolence, which means wanting to do good for the consumer aside from being motivated by profit. It may be that the regulatory framework in which Scottish Water operates as a statutory corporation has led to greater consumer trust.

In part, current levels of trust are a consequence of the way in which businesses have reacted to the challenges presented by the coronavirus crisis, such as unexpected changes in demand or cancellations necessitated by the restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the virus. In Scotland, some sectors appear to have gained trust since the pandemic started whilst others have lost it. We asked consumers if they trusted industries more, less, or about the same since the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic and calculated a net of the proportion who trust the industry more minus the proportion who trust it less, providing a single figure that summarises change in trust since the pandemic started.

 

The food and groceries industry has seen a boost in trust since the pandemic, with 25% saying they trust this industry more since the pandemic and just 5% saying they trust it less, giving a net of +20, see Figure 6. This boost is an endorsement of the way in which retailers, manufacturers and producers responded to the challenges posed by the initial concerns about food availability and increased demand for deliveries from last Spring. 

The industries that have lost trust are insurance companies, airlines and holiday operators and social networks, and in the case of the latter two industries the loss of trust has been significantly greater among Scottish consumers than the rest of the UK. Our analysis of the holiday industry indicated that lost trust in airlines and holiday companies is likely linked to travellers’ difficulties in obtaining refunds for cancelled holidays, as levels of trust were higher among consumers who had received swift refunds. This highlights the need for better protections for holidaymakers’ money, while the Civil Aviation Authority – which has been unable to take meaningful action against airlines holding up the refund process by withholding money from holiday companies – must be given stronger powers.

The loss of trust in social networks is of a similar magnitude, although the reason for this is less clear. It could be related to misinformation that is perceived to be spread via social media platforms with concerns about this becoming particularly acute during the pandemic. To regain trust it will be necessary for social media platforms to do more to protect their users from harm. For example, Which? have called for online platforms to have a legal responsibility to prevent fraudulent content from appearing on their sites.

Home broadband


Whether by compulsion because of restrictions or choice due to safety fears, the pandemic has hugely increased our dependence on home broadband to manage our daily lives. In Scotland, 66% of people said they often use their home broadband for communication with friends and family and 59% said they were using it often for entertainment, but the type of use that has increased most as a result of the crisis is for working from home. 28% of all Scots reported often using their home broadband for working from home, although this varied strongly by social grade as those in higher social grades are considerably more likely to be doing this. Similar levels of usage of home broadband for these activities can be seen across the UK, although an exception is that Scottish consumers are less likely to do grocery shopping online. Consumers in more rural areas are less likely to be able to receive online deliveries, but our data suggests that the lower use of online grocery shopping in Scotland cannot be explained just by this.

For some consumers, the pandemic has meant learning how to manage aspects of their life online. 28% of respondents in Scotland said the crisis had pushed them to learn to do new administrative tasks such as banking and utility management online. The consequence of this is that almost all (91%) of our (online) panel now do these tasks online at least sometimes. This means that more people are now taking advantage of the opportunities that online services can offer. However, it might raise safety concerns as users of digital banking are twice as likely to have been defrauded than those who bank offline, while 18% of people said they found these tasks difficult, which highlights that digital inclusion requires both access to the internet and the skills to use it. There may also be harm if the pandemic leads to a permanent reduction in the demand for physical services, such as bank branches, and a resultant cut in the provision of these as there remain a number of consumers who would prefer to manage their affairs offline. 14% of people told us they want to switch to completing such tasks offline as soon as possible.

The increased importance of online services puts the focus on the quality of broadband connections. Home broadband networks have largely coped well with increased demand, in part because this has occurred during the day and peak demand remains in the evening. However, many Scottish respondents report problems with the reliability of their home broadband. About 13% of respondents to our survey in Scotland reported often having problems and 31% sometimes. 

This may be in part due to lack of access to a high-quality connection. Only 50% of connected households in Scotland are able to access ultrafast or better broadband (download speeds of 300MBps or more), which is less than the proportion in England or Northern Ireland, while there remain 34,000 premises in Scotland that cannot access a decent connection (defined as a speed of at least 10Mbit/s download speed and 1Mbit/s upload speed).

However, it may be that a greater problem is the slow adoption of better-quality connections by consumers. Gigabit-capable broadband would deliver faster speeds and a more reliable service and the UK government wants at least 85% of the UK to have access to this by 2025. However, there must also be sufficient demand for the benefits of this technology to be experienced across the economy and society. Currently, only a third (33%) of Scottish consumers intend to switch to gigabit-capable broadband when it becomes available, although those with more frequent reliability issues are more likely to say they want to upgrade. 47% of those who report often experiencing broadband service problems agree that they intend to upgrade to gigabit-capable broadband.

One of the largest barriers to consumer adoption is that many consumers do not perceive there to be sufficient benefit to switching to faster (gigabit-capable) broadband connections. 48% of Scottish consumers told us they were unclear how gigabit-capable broadband is different to their current connection while 65% said that their current broadband met their needs. 

Our previous analysis has shown that people who currently have the slowest speeds are least likely to intend to take up gigabit-capable broadband. This is concerning as it implies that, without intervention, there will be greater inequality of internet speed and quality. This could create a digital divide, with those with standard broadband lagging behind. For that reason, the government asked Which? to chair the Gigabit Take-up Advisory Group to propose ways to stimulate demand among consumers and businesses for gigabit-capable broadband. This will mean that the significant resources being invested in developing new infrastructure are more likely to lead to social and economic benefits that are widespread across the economy.

Cash payments


Of the many impacts of the pandemic on consumer behaviour, one of the most notable has been the way in which it has accelerated the transition from cash to digital payments. Switching purchases online, not being able to buy some goods that would usually be paid for with cash, and (largely unfounded) concern about the risk of banknotes transmitting the virus have all contributed to consumers using less cash. 76% of Scottish consumers have replaced some or all of their usual cash use with card or mobile payments, with 44% being concerned about viral transmission. This is in line with a similar trend across the whole of the UK.

Despite this, most people still want the flexibility of using cash and it remains a vital payment method for many. Cash use is relatively higher among less well-off consumers, but only 4% of Scottish consumers say they never use cash. The reasons people gave for continued cash use include as a precautionary measure in case electronic payments are down (82% of people agreed they do this) and to be more in control of their finances (44%). 

Given this, it is crucial that cash remains widely available and free to access for those who need it, but access has declined in recent years due to bank branch closures and the loss of ATMs. More than a fifth (22%) of Scottish consumers told us they had experienced difficulties in accessing cash. 

Using data provided by LINK, the network which processes almost all UK ATM withdrawals, we have calculated the change in provision of ATMs over the last three years. We found that the number of free-to-use ATMs has fallen across the UK, and the fall in Scotland was 25% as there has been a net loss of more than 1,300 free-to-use ATMS between January 2018 to December 2020. Although almost 900 new free-to-use ATMs were added to the network, this was outweighed by about 2,200 free-to-use ATMS that either closed or were converted to pay to use.  

Scotland had a 35% increase in the number of surcharging or pay-to-use ATMs across the same period. Previous work by Which? has found that conversions from free-to-use to pay-to-use have been concentrated in areas that are more rural and areas that have greater levels of deprivation. This is concerning since it suggests that withdrawal charges are likely to have a regressive effect and impact more on low-income consumers.

A further issue is that there has been an increase during the pandemic in the number of businesses that have decided not to accept cash. 34% of Scottish consumers told us they had been in a situation in the last three months where they would have liked to pay in cash but couldn’t. This proportion was significantly higher than the 22% and 26% who had experienced this in Northern Ireland and Wales.

 

Cash remains important to the lives of millions of consumers and the loss of widespread access and acceptability of cash will cause extensive harm. Which? have campaigned extensively for cash to be protected for those that need it and we welcomed the government’s Budget 2020 announcement that it will legislate to do so. We have called for this legislation to be introduced urgently and for the FCA to be made responsible for tracking cash acceptance levels. In the meantime, it is important that the largest retail banks do their bit to protect the cash network by continuing to support the LINK and Post Office networks.

Attitudes to international trade


The pandemic is not the only current event that is likely to impact on consumers for years to come. Following our exit from the EU, the UK is developing trade policy as an individual country for the first time in over 40 years and the result of this will impact on consumers across the country. It’s therefore essential that the consumer voice is heard when the government negotiates trade deals.

To make sure this happens, Which? carried out The National Trade Conversation, a large programme of qualitative research with consumers from around the UK. Bringing together the findings from our workshops with consumers from the East Coast of Scotland with the evidence from our survey of Scottish consumers, we have a rich picture of what matters most to them about future UK trade deals. 

Maintaining health and safety standards for food and other consumer goods will be key as more than half (53%) of Scottish consumers in the survey ranked this as their top priority for trade deals. In the National Trade Conversation, people told us they were concerned about the health and animal welfare implications of food produced to lower standards. Participants were also keen to maintain standards for other consumer goods. There was a sense that the UK had worked hard to achieve its high standards and shouldn’t be compromised for the sake of a trade deal. 

“We are lucky to have high standards across the board from food to data protection in the UK - we don’t want to compromise these.”

Another motivating factor to maintain existing food standards is the relative importance of farming and food and drink manufacture to the Scottish economy. Many were concerned about the negative impacts cheap imports could have on the livelihoods of those producing Scottish food and drink. Many felt that trade deals should be more transparent, in order to minimise the possibility of a ‘bad’ deal. 

“When you think how much of Scotland is given over to farming, how much of Fife, Angus, the Highlands, the Borders, Aberdeenshire, if we're not careful about the effect on UK farmers it could have devastating consequences on our rural economy.”

Consumers and sustainability


Sustainability is recognised as an increasingly important issue for consumers, and this will continue as the UK aims to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. However, there is some evidence that, despite consumers’ desire for more sustainable products and services, they do not always make the sustainable choice.  We’ve explored this paradox by investigating consumer levels of concern about sustainability, the actions they say they’ve taken as a result of sustainability concerns, and what barriers they face to making more sustainable choices.

 

Most Scottish consumers, along with those in the rest of the UK, expressed at least some concern about sustainability issues. Almost two thirds of Scots said they were either fairly or very worried about climate change, while just 11% of Scots said they were not at all worried.  A comparable proportion were worried about pollution and biodiversity and habitat loss too. Levels of concern do vary by age though. Those aged over 65 are less likely to be worried about these issues. 17% of over 65s said they were not at all worried about climate change, compared to just 4% of 18- to 29-year-olds. 

This environmental concern does translate through to some buying behaviour. More people have made a consciously sustainable choice when buying electrical appliances than other products and services. 45% of Scottish consumers said they had done this. Perhaps this is unsurprising since a sustainable choice for these products might mean energy efficiency and lower household bills. Fewer people make sustainable choices for products in which it might require a harder trade-off or sacrifice, but even for some of these like clothing and household goods about two-fifths of people said they have made a sustainable choice. In general, similar proportions of people in Scotland said they had made sustainable purchases as elsewhere in the UK.

The figures indicate that a sizable minority of consumers do not end up making the sustainable choice despite considering it. This was especially the case when shopping for vehicles and energy tariffs. Price and availability were the most frequently experienced as barriers to buying sustainably. In both cases, 86% of Scottish consumers said they have experienced this at least sometimes. A lack of clear information is also an issue as 71% of people said they couldn’t always understand what  the greenest choice would be. 

The Competition and Markets Authority is currently examining whether green claims can be misleading. Our survey indicates that this is an important issue for consumers as more than half (56%) said that not believing the green claims of companies was a barrier at least some of the time.

We also asked respondents about their general consumption habits, and any actions they take as a result of environmental concerns. A large majority (77%) of Scottish respondents who were at least a little worried about environmental issues reported having recycled or donated an item to avoid waste, although this was more common in older age groups (more than 80% of over 50s) compared to younger groups (72% of 18- to 29-year-olds). 66% reported having repaired or made something last longer. Less common actions were boycotting a product or business (19% of people had done this) or sharing an item, for example a car share or tool share (19%).

Overall, these survey results indicate high levels of concern among Scottish consumers regarding the environment, and a desire among many to buy in a more sustainable way. However, there are many barriers to buying more sustainably, whether that be price, availability, knowledge and understanding, or greenwashing.  

Which? is committed to giving consumers who want to reduce their environmental impact greater confidence. We have introduced an Eco Buy label to help consumers make sustainable choices and will work with manufacturers and policymakers to ensure consumers have reliable information, a wide range of sustainable products available and the support they need to make lower impact choices.

Priorities for Consumer Scotland


Later this year Consumer Scotland will start to tackle consumer harm and champion consumer rights in Scotland. The issues set out in the preceding sections of this report, in particular the lower levels of trust in industries among Scottish consumers compared to the rest of the UK, highlight the need for such a body to advocate for consumers in Scotland. 

It will be essential that this new consumer body quickly sets out its priorities. To get a sense of what Scottish consumers think it should prioritise we showed them a list of possible priorities based on the areas set out in the Consumer Scotland Bill and asked them to select up to three items that they believed should be the highest priorities.

The most frequently chosen priority was ensuring fair treatment of consumers by utility companies, with 43% of consumers selecting this as one of their top three priorities. This is perhaps unsurprising given the significantly lower trust in the gas and electricity industry in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK. This was particularly important for lower income households (with annual income of up to £21,000) as half (51%) of these chose this as one of their top priorities.

Protecting consumers from scams and from misuse of their personal data also rated highly, with 41% selecting each of these as a top priority. 31% selected protecting consumers from unsafe products as a top-three priority. 

Good internet access and fair delivery charges were less popular choices, at 24% and 12% respectively. However, such access issues were more likely to be considered a priority by respondents living in rural setting. Among those living in very rural areas (ie a hamlet or isolated dwelling), 43% selected internet access and 27% selected fair delivery charges.  

Methodology


Which? Quantitative survey

Yonder, on behalf of Which? conducted a survey of consumers in each of the UK nations from 4th-18th December 2020. A minimum of 1,000 respondents were recruited for each of the four nations, with quotas and response weighting used to obtain a nationally representative sample for each nation according to their known age and gender profiles. The survey covered consumer sentiment and financial wellbeing, trust, broadband, cash, trade and sustainability.