The cost of living crisis is the top concern for Northern Irish consumers as nearly a third say they would struggle to afford an unexpected bill of £300, Which?’s annual Consumers in Northern Ireland report reveals.
The consumer champion carried out extensive research with more than 1,000 people in Northern Ireland during November and December 2021 to uncover and understand the key issues experienced by consumers.
The cost of living crisis emerged as the top concern for Northern Irish consumers – with almost a third of people (30%) saying they would not be able to pay an unexpected bill of £300 either through their regular income or by dipping into savings.
Most of these would either borrow money or cut back on essentials to cover such a bill, but five per cent said they would not be able to pay it at all. This rose to one in seven (15%) of those with a household income of £21,000 or less.
An overwhelming majority of Northern Irish consumers (85%) said they were worried about energy prices – a huge increase on the half of respondents (52%) who were worried last year.
Concern about fuel and food prices were also very high (84% and 79% respectively), again a major increase on 53 per cent and 62 per cent who were concerned about fuel and food last year. Consumers in Northern Ireland were significantly more likely to be worried about fuel prices compared to the other devolved nations.
Seven in ten (70%) consumers in Northern Ireland said they had already experienced increased energy prices in December 2021, compared to a maximum of 55 per cent in any of the other nations of the UK.
This is perhaps unsurprising as the majority of Northern Irish households heat their homes with oil and, according to the Consumer Council, average prices for 500 litres of oil are rising dramatically from £192 at the end of March 2021 to more than £500 in March 2022.
To offset the impact of higher energy prices, nearly half (46%) of people said that they had put the heating on less, whilst one in four (42%) had reduced their use of lights and appliances around the home. A fifth (21%) had shopped around for a better deal, significantly more than in the other nations.
Two-thirds (65%) told us they had noticed higher food prices. Many of those who had experienced higher food prices also reported adapting their behaviour by buying cheaper alternative products (48%) or cheaper brands (48%), buying extra items when on promotion (41%), shopping around in other stores or online shops (44%), or buying extra items when on promotion (41%). Nearly one in ten (9%) of consumers in Northern Ireland said they had gone so far as to skip meals.
It is clear that many households are going to need substantial support in the coming months. This needs to reach those that are most vulnerable and support people in the short-term as they deal with higher energy costs. In addition to the financial assistance that is being provided by the government, companies need to make sure they are ready to support customers in financial distress and treat their customers fairly.
Rocio Concha, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?, said:
“Rising prices are already causing financial distress among consumers and the war in the Ukraine is going to mean higher prices for longer.
“Many more households will need support as energy bills and other costs rise this year. Businesses and regulators – as well as the UK and Northern Irish governments – must work quickly to ensure they are ready to support anyone struggling to make ends meet.”
Notes to editors
Yonder, on behalf of Which? conducted a survey of more than 1,000 consumers in Northern Ireland from 30th November – 8th December 2021, with quotas and response weighting used to obtain a nationally representative sample for each nation according to their known age and gender profiles.
Which?’s Consumers in Northern Ireland 2022 report will be available at https://consumerinsight.which.
The finding that almost two-thirds of Northern Ireland households use oil to heat their homes comes from Perceptive Insight (2022), Domestic Consumer Insight Tracker Survey, Report prepared for the Utility Regulator.
The statistics on the price of heating oil are taken from the Consumer Council’s Home Heating Oil Price Checker (link here).
Which? will be hosting a virtual event, attended by regulators and consumer bodies, on Wednesday 30th March, where these findings from the Consumers in Northern Ireland Report will provide invaluable insight into the concerns and attitudes of Northern Irish consumers and the key issues that need to be addressed.
Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.
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