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‘More sophisticated’: The pandemic has changed how Australians are spending money

NAB’s consumer anxiety index, based on a representative survey of 2000 Australians, fell last quarter to record its lowest result since mid-2019. But new consumer behaviours adopted during the coronavirus crisis continue to affect the economy.

NAB estimates that during the 12 months to December 2020 Australians spent $44.2 billion on online retail, equivalent to around 13 per cent of total retail trade and 44 per cent higher than during the 12 months to December 2019.

Australian attitudes towards online shopping have changed since the pandemic.

Australian attitudes towards online shopping have changed since the pandemic.

Reserve Bank assistant governor Michele Bullock said in a speech last year the increased use of online shopping triggered by the pandemic “seems likely to be a permanent shift”.

Alongside the trend for more online shopping is a commitment to support local businesses, with 36 per cent of respondents to NAB’s survey saying they are now spending more locally.

The study also found consumers are still showing “some reluctance” to visit major shopping centres.

Dean Pearson, NAB’s head of behavioural economics, said new purchasing attitudes and habits which emerged during the pandemic were lingering.

“We’ve ended up with more cautions, more informed, more sophisticated and more demanding consumers,” he said.

Young men aged 18 to 30 were the most anxious in the December quarter. Concern in that age group was driven by job insecurity.

The anxiety gap between rich and poor, which narrowed at the onset of the pandemic, has now widened with consumers earning less than $35,000 a year reporting a much higher level of anxiety (61.1) than those earning over $100,000 annually (52.9). Anxiety rose among self-employed consumers in the December quarter and is much higher than average.

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A separate spending tracker developed by AlphaBeta and illion showed a sharp lift in spending in many high-income districts of Sydney and Melbourne towards the end of last year.

When consumers were asked which behaviours they expect to change most in the future, personal hygiene (such as hand washing) topped the list followed by fewer overseas holidays, less plane travel, less travel on public transport, more saving for emergencies, spending less time in shopping centres and more purchasing online.

A small share of those surveyed said they were considering relocating for lifestyle reasons in the wake of the pandemic.

“Our research continues to also suggest relatively few consumers are considering moving for a lifestyle change,” the report said.

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