Richard Shepherd
Richard researches and writes a range of financial services reports at Mintel.

1. Good…but expected news. It’s exciting news that the UK has become the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for widespread use, and it shows that there is a way out of this crisis. Although we’re not epidemiologists at Mintel, understanding the path of this disease is essential in understanding consumer behaviour, and so we’ve been playing close attention to the scientific consensus on the availability of a vaccine. Our central forecasts have been based around the hope that a vaccine rollout would have started by mid-2021, so this is coming slightly sooner than we’d expected – but it’s still broadly in line with those expectations.

2. The timing of the rollout and who will get it first is crucial. The vaccine will be going to elderly and high risk groups first. Lower risk groups are going to have to wait many more months before they are vaccinated. In Mintel’s latest wave of COVID tracker research, which closed on 19 November, 45% of consumers said they’d be either extremely or somewhat uncomfortable visiting a bar or restaurant, and 60% that they’d be uncomfortable taking a flight. Until we have a wider rollout of the virus, those concerns will still hold back consumer willingness to return to life as normal.

3. The first to get vaccinated aren’t on the whole the biggest spenders in many of the consumer-facing markets that have been hit hardest. Vaccinating the over-75s will have a limited impact on, say, the foodservice or even the travel industries. So the immediate hopes of those firms will hinge on the vaccine boosting confidence among previously-cautious younger people and, even more importantly, on it giving enough protection to vulnerable groups to minimise the need for further lockdowns.

4. Having said that, even if it’s a long time before under-65s get the vaccine, pre-vaccination roll-out will have an immediate impact on behaviour as consumers start to relax and worry less about passing the virus onto their grandparents, parents or older relatives. We’ve already seen how such concerns can influence consumers’ plans, with over 70% saying they plan to limit their time in crowded areas before seeing family at Christmas. So even a partial vaccination could have a really big impact on consumer behaviour – removing that fear of passing on COVID to someone who is extremely vulnerable should lead to a fundamental shift in consumer confidence.

5. However, the flipside to this is that those who are less concerned could make things worse in the interim. The last thing we need is ‘vaccine complacency’ – but this is a definite risk, especially given the loosening of social distancing measures over the Christmas period. The combination of festive socialising and a feeling that we are on the way towards beating the virus could well lead to a further increase in infection numbers.

6. You can’t increase spending without a job. The furlough scheme has saved millions of jobs so far, but the high street has taken a battering and inevitably thousands of roles are turning from ‘saved jobs’ to ‘delayed redundancies’. We are already seeing the number of job losses increase and this will accelerate in the coming months. The big positive, though, is that consumer confidence is holding up surprisingly well. As outlined in our forthcoming report on UK consumers and the economic outlook, people are more likely to say that their finances have deteriorated over the last year, but the very large majority are still managing to make ends meet.