Wary consumers feel pinch of the nervous Nineties

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The Independent Online
The consumer of the Nineties is sadder, wiser and stingier, according to a survey published yesterday. Saving money is at the top of the list, with more people postponing big purchases such as cars or washing machines and preferring to invest in pensions, school fees or health insurance.

The influential British Lifestyles Survey, from the market research group Mintel, said that consumer confidence is "at a low ebb". After the spendthrift Eighties, consumers now are "canny, wary and value conscious," Peter Ayton, Mintel's head of research, said.

A poll for Mintel shows that cuts in value added tax, followed by a fall in inflation and a general rise in pay, would do most to recreate the missing "feel good" factor. Next would be cuts in income tax and a fall in interest rates.

Mintel is predicting a "gradual recovery" in consumer confidence but says that this will be patchy. Fears about debt and job insecurity are holding back spending on holidays, while static house prices and interest rates are hindering the growth in the car market. More people are buying low-mileage cars less than a year old. These depreciate less, the survey says.

The ageing of the population is also affecting spending plans. Many of the fastest growing age groups either have little money to spend or have bought most of the goods they want.

Between 1994 and 1999 the biggest proportionate rise in numbers, 14.3 per cent, will be among those in their fifties. Typically their children will have left home and they will already own expensive products.

The next-biggest rises come in those over-74, who will increase by 11.1 per cent, and those in their thirties (7.7 per cent). The "home building" age group, from 20-29, will decline by 12.6 per cent, which will mean a flat period among first-time buyers and knock-on spending.

Between 1984 and 1994 the biggest rises in household spending came in financial services (up 380 per cent in cash terms), domestic and garden help (352 per cent) and medical insurance (320 per cent). "Many of these areas have also benefited from a polarisation of income over the period because they cater for the richer element in society," the survey says.

The biggest growth in spending over the next five years will come in financial services - 42 per cent in real terms, says Mintel - as more people realise the state pension will not be adequate and the NHS may not be able to support them.

The survey says working women will make up 47 per centof the work force in 2001 compared with 41 per cent in 1984. It forecasts more single-person households, a result of high divorce rates, later marriage and longer life expectancy.

9British Lifestyles 1995, £895, Mintel, 18-19 Long Lane, London EC1A 9HE. Price £895.