New research indicates that the majority of South African consumers are under tremendous financial pressure, living from month to month.
According to management consultants McKinsey & Company, as of 2015, the country’s consuming class has grown to about nine million households, accounting for $191 billion in private consumption.
Yet, despite this expansion of the consumer pool, private consumption in South Africa has been growing at a fairly subdued annual rate of 2.8% over the past five years and a mere 1.6% in the past year—slower than Africa’s other major economies.
To buy what they need, many South Africans have had to dig into savings or make purchases on credit as a result of higher prices – inflation has averaged 5.4% over the past five years, edging up to 6.4% in 2016 – and low real growth in wages (averaging 1.3% in the past five years).
A survey of 1,000 local consumers found that most are concerned about their financial prospects and thus hold back on spending. Almost 70% of respondents said they worry about imminent job loss. More than half said they are living paycheck to paycheck.
The survey responses brought to light a set of four behavioral shifts among consumers.
1. They proactively search for savings
Consumers are reducing their spending in a variety of ways. Three quarters of respondents agreed that they’re “increasingly looking for ways to save money.”
More than half said they are tightening their belts by comparing prices, seeking out sales and promotions, delaying purchases, and shopping at several stores to find better deals.
In addition, they’re changing their eating habits—in particular, eating at home instead of dining out and cooking from scratch more often.
2. They are brand loyal—but only if the price is right
Three out of every four South African survey respondents said they’ve modified their buying behavior when it comes to their favorite brands.
Many haven’t abandoned their preferred brands but are shopping around to find retailers that sell these brands at lower prices.
Some are also purchasing in smaller quantities, waiting until the brands are on sale, or buying only with discount coupons
3. Once they trade down, they might not go back
In the survey, 21% of consumers, compared with only 12% of consumers globally, reported trading down—that is, buying cheaper brands or private-label products instead of their preferred brands.
Among consumers who traded down, 36% opted for private-label products.
4. They shop across channels and find value at discounters
Another important change in spending habits has to do with where people shop.
South Africans claimed to have shifted a considerable fraction of their spending toward modern retailers and away from the small independent retailers collectively known as the fragmented trade or informal trade.