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The public's view: how did the pandemic impact on UK consumers' experiences?

Posted on 18 July 2022 by Marta Mezzanzanica, Research Director

This blog was authored by Marta Mezzanzanica and Angela Stockman

Since its emergence in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant social and economic disruption across the world, with businesses forced to close, borders closed, personal restrictions imposed and supply chains interrupted. Consumers were also affected, directly or indirectly, by this disruption.

And what about UK consumers specifically? What was the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the consumer experience and on the incidence of consumer detriment in the UK?

Our research looked at the extent to which respondents felt their experiences of consumer detriment between April 2020 and April 2021 – problems with the products they bought which caused them stress, cost them money, or took up their time – were caused or made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

How many experiences consumers felt have been somewhat affected by COVID-19? And what’s their total cost to UK consumers?

Consumers perceived 4 in 10 experiences of detriment to have either been caused or made worse by COVID-19 (13% were thought to have been caused by it and 30% were thought to have been made worse by it). Taking into account the total costs to consumers, including the monetised value of the time they spent attempting to resolve the problem and mitigations offered by the provider, the total monetised cost of detriment experiences felt to be caused or made worse by COVID-19 to UK consumers was £26.5 billion.

Were experiences that were affected by COVID-19 more severe?

Problems perceived as being caused or made worse by COVID-19 were reported as being more time-consuming and more costly for consumers than those not perceived as having been affected by it. Consumers reported spending an average of two hours attempting to resolve problems that they thought had been affected by COVID-19, compared to one hour for problems they viewed as being unaffected by COVID-19.

Accounting for the greater time investment for consumers, along with other costs and mitigations, detriment experiences considered affected by COVID-19 had a higher median net monetised cost: £34 if mostly or fully caused by COVID-19, £28 if made worse by it, and £20 if not affected by it.  

Were experiences that were considered affected by COVID-19 more detrimental to consumers’ wellbeing, health and finances?

Consumers were more likely to have reported an adverse impact on their wellbeing as a result of the detriment for experiences that they thought were caused or made worse by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Where the pandemic was considered the cause, or at least partly to blame, for detriment experienced, consumers were more likely to have felt to at least some extent upset, helpless, misled or anxious. Consumers were consistently more likely to report negative effects on health and finances for incidents considered to have been caused or made worse by the pandemic.

Which types of purchases were most likely to have been perceived as affected by COVID-19?

Consumers acknowledged the disruptions caused by the pandemic to have been a key reason for the detriment they faced in some sectors, but they did not recognise its role in others.

Consumers were most likely to consider detriment relating to the airline sector and package holidays and tours as having been caused or made worse by the pandemic (96% and 95% respectively) followed by sport, cultural and entertainment activities (85%), hotels and holiday accommodation (80%), private medical and dental services (73%) and real estate services (71%). When grouping these sectors together in market clusters, detriment in the transport (74%), personal service (71%) and recreation (55%) industries were most likely to be viewed as related to COVID-19. This likely reflects the high levels of disruption in these industries as a result of lockdowns, travel restrictions and distancing measures.

Interestingly, however, only 34% of the experiences in the telecoms and digital subscriptions sectors were considered to be affected by the pandemic, despite the increased pressure that the CVID-19 outbreak put on internet provision. This suggests that the pandemic’s impact on internet provision was less tangible than it was on some other sectors, where the role of the pandemic appeared to be more obvious to consumers.   

Reflecting the significant disruption the pandemic caused to supply chains and distribution, a relatively high proportion of consumers identified problems with delivery or failure to provide the item or service as associated with the pandemic. Consumers were also more likely to have thought that detriment experiences which related to a misleading price were caused or made worse by COVID-19.

In conclusion, on average, consumers who experienced at least one incident of detriment between April 2020 and April 2021 perceived the COVID-19 outbreak as having been a major cause of their experiences of detriment. Detriment incidents perceived as being affected by the pandemic were more costly and more time-consuming for consumers, as well as being more likely to negatively impact consumers’ wellbeing.

Read the full findings and access the final report from the Consumer Protection Study 2022

For the Consumer Protection Study “consumers” were defined as: people in the UK who – between April 2020 and April 2021 – purchased an item or a service, or used an item or a service previously purchased. “Experiences of consumer detriment” (or, simply “problems”) were defined as: problems with the products consumers bought in the last 12 months, or bought at any time and used in the last 12 months, that caused them stress, cost them money, or took up their time. “Consumer detriment” (or, simply “detriment”) was the monetised, emotional and wellbeing impacts/consequences of such problems.

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