Has the pandemic permanently changed our spending ways?
Covid-19 has undoubtedly changed many aspects of our lives, some of which we would hope to return to as soon as the clouds of the pandemic lift.
However, there are some areas where our habits may have shifted permanently and are unlikely to revert completely to the old ways.
One example is our relationship with our money and how we spend it.
Everything from shopping online to food deliveries and the acceleration in the decline in the use of cash have been features of the pandemic.
And there have been other indirect effects of Covid that are impacting our relationship with our hard-earned euro.
For example, things are getting more expensive because of inflation, and we’ve had to become more patient as consumers as supply chain difficulties have meant we’ve had to wait longer for products to arrive at our doors.
Big bang change
The Vladimir Lenin quote ‘there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen’ will likely feel appropriate as we look to life beyond Covid.
As we retrenched to the sanctity of our homes in March of 2020, we had to adapt to new ways of doing things and rather than going out for our services, they came to us.
But some couldn’t and our spending simply receded.
“There has been a severe contraction in aggregate consumption from early March 2020 and within that, there has also been a substantial reallocation of spending compared with previous long-established spending patterns,” the Central Bank concluded in a report on the impact of Covid-19 consumer spending at the end of 2020.
Total spending in the retail sector went from 47% of card spending in 2019 to 55% a year later, the study concluded, with the reallocation largely driven by changes in spending on groceries – supermarkets being one of the few outlets we could visit in lockdown.
In contrast, as has been well documented, hospitality and events venues suffered.
According to figures from the Central Statistics Office, household spending fell by €10 billion in 2020 with the biggest impact on spending in restaurants and hotels, which fell by €6.5 billion.
Savings boom giving way to spending boom?
Much of the money that went unspent ended up in deposit accounts with the savings rate among many Irish consumers – who already had a penchant for putting money on deposit – rocketing.
According to the latest data from the Central Bank, the level of deposits in Ireland stood at an all-time high of €136 billion by the end of October.
That was up by €24 billion since the pandemic hit.
But there are signs that the purse strings were loosened a bit throughout 2021 with consumers slowly starting to part with their Covid savings.
Central Bank figures for November showed household deposits declining by €1.4 billion in the month marking the first time since the summer that withdrawals had exceeded lodgements.
A savings and investment barometer from Bank of Ireland in the run into Christmas recorded the biggest quarterly decline in attitudes towards savings among households indicating that our saving ways were regressing somewhat.
Clicks and mortar
As retail outlets reopened throughout 2021, consumers returned in their droves to the main street and shopping centres, contributing to a record tax take.
Receipts from the sales tax VAT in the Exchequer returns for 2021 pointed to a healthy rebound in consumption last year with the total take coming in at €15.4 billion, up almost a quarter on 2020.
But the habit of spending online, that many took up for the first time during the pandemic, showed no signs of abating dramatically.
According to a CSO study on digital consumer behaviour, around four out of five consumers bought goods or services online last year with people in the 16-44 age category most likely to do so.
A survey of consumers by KPMG earlier in the year revealed that over two thirds said they were doing more online shopping than they were before the pandemic.
However, while more and more retailers are following the trend by making their products and services available online, much of the spend that goes through online channels still ends up leaving the country.
An analysis by payments app Revolut of Black Friday spending in December concluded that while almost three-quarters of all Black Friday spending was kept within the State, with the majority of the spend being carried out in person, the bulk of the spending online was transacted on foreign websites – about two thirds of it, in fact.
That was an increase on 2020 when 39% of online shopping by Revolut’s Irish customers was carried out with domestic websites, and 61% was ordered from overseas sites.
So, it may be a good thing that some old habits look to be sticking around for the time being.
Despite the emergence of the highly transmissible omicron variant of Covid, consumers continued to shop in-store in the run into Christmas with the last-minute dash to the shops persisting as a feature of the retail landscape, despite the public health warnings and the advice to shop early to avoid disappointment arising from supply chain difficulties.
According to Bank of Ireland’s December spending data, around two thirds of people preferred to do their Christmas shopping in-person rather than online.
And Revolut spending data pointed to a surge in spending in December at outlets where last-minute purchases are typically procured including jewellers, department stores and toy shops.
Cash is king no longer?
Regardless of where people did their spending, the chances are that they did not make their purchases with cash.
Having raised the threshold at which consumers could ‘tap’ for their purchases from €30 to €50 at the start of the pandemic, contactless payments inevitably surged.
And the preference for cards over cash appears to have continued with the latest data from the Banking and Payments Federation showing contactless payments reaching a new high between July and September with around 234 million payments worth nearly €3.8 billion completed.
That was an increase of nearly 100 million ‘taps’ over the last quarter of 2019 before the pandemic struck and in monetary terms it was an increase of over €2 billion.
It was the highest level recorded since the BPFI began collecting the data in 2016.
And the shift is being nudged along by banks and retailers too with the former generally charging more for ATM withdrawals than for tapping and the latter, in some circumstances, opting to no longer accept cash.
It looks as if the end of the road could be nigh for cash eventually, but the European Central Bank is certainly not giving up on it yet with plans in place to completely redesign the euro in the coming years.
Patience needed as costs soar
One indirect effect of the pandemic on our spending patterns has been the decline in the spending power of our euro of late.
Consumer price inflation – something that was largely absent for much of the last decade – has returned with some gusto as economies bounce back from lockdown.
Much if it has been largely confined to the energy sector with transport and household utility costs rising substantially, but that’s having a knock-on effect on other categories, some of which has not yet materialised.
Food producers and processors, for example, appear to be absorbing big cost increases which, it’s expected, will eventually have to be passed on to the end consumer at some point.
So far, consumer price inflation in the food and drink sector has stayed below 1% compared to over 5% in the wider basket of consumer goods.
Some of the cost increases that we are seeing in areas like construction are as a result of delays in materials getting to their end destination – supply chain disruption is the phrase that we’ve all become familiar with – and a shortage of materials translates into higher prices.
The European Central Bank mantra is to be patient and it will pass, but how long that will take is anyone’s guess and will they be forced into taking action in the meantime meaning possible interest rate rises that will impact most people with borrowings?
Getting back to normal will take time, but the ‘new normal’ is likely to look very different to what went before.