Tackling the cost of living crisis will require businesses to step up
New research from Which? indicates that businesses have the power to go further in supporting those who need it most.
Skipping meals, selling possessions, and a lack of sleep: Which?’s latest research reveals in stark clarity the impact that the cost of living crisis is having on consumers across the country. We estimate over 18 million households say they have made at least one financial adjustment - such as cutting back on essentials or dipping into savings - in the last month just to cover essential spending. One respondent likened the current situation to a “financial lockdown”.
As the UK’s consumer champion, we have been helping consumers to manage this very challenging situation with our direct advice. We’ve also been sharing our insights on how consumers are being affected and advocating for ways to help them with government, businesses and regulators.
There have already been significant interventions from the government. The freeze on energy prices at £2,500 for an average household was a bold and welcome step that will help to ease fears over how people will heat their homes this winter. Government action will of course remain essential for those struggling the most.
However, solutions to tackle the cost of living won’t be achieved through direct advice by charities and government intervention alone. We understand the pressures firms face: inflation is at a 40-year high and consumers are spending less. But Which? believes that businesses also have an important role to play in helping their customers navigate the turbulent times ahead.
Our new campaign asks businesses in essential areas where consumers can only cut back so much - supermarkets, energy and telecoms - to do more to make customers’ lives easier. This is not to say that some firms are not already taking steps. For instance, some telecoms firms have introduced social tariffs and energy companies have taken steps to provide direct support for their most vulnerable customers. But we believe they could, and should, go further.
First, supermarkets should be making the grocery shop much easier. The last thing budgeting shoppers need is added stress from unclear pricing. Supermarkets have the power to change that now. There are still too many situations where unit pricing is not prominent, legible and consistent - such as on price promotions. Customers must know which deal is the best value.
We have heard heartbreaking stories of families struggling to find affordable products in their local supermarkets or having to take long journeys just to find budget ranges that meet their families’ needs. Supermarkets should, wherever possible, enable easy access to budget ranges in locations where it is needed most. Marketing budgets and promotions ought to be tailored to support customers who are struggling, with offers, vouchers and loyalty cards benefits.
Second, energy companies should be doing all they can to make their bills easy to understand. There’s an overwhelming sense of dread when we receive letters or emails from our energy provider - but that shouldn’t be compounded by confusion about what we’re being asked to pay and why.
Effective customer service is always important, but at a time when more people are contacting their energy providers for assistance or urgent help, it’s essential. Suppliers must ensure their customer service centres are adequately staffed to meet this increased demand.
Energy suppliers should also be making sure that customers on prepayment meters, who are more likely to be struggling financially, can easily access government support.
Third, telecoms firms should allow customers hit by mid-contract price rises to leave their contracts part way through to do so without incurring charges. In addition, consumers on lower incomes should not be penalised if they need to leave their existing contract at any stage to move to a social tariff that would be more manageable for their finances.
Current take up of social tariffs for eligible customers is still far too low - and providers must do more to increase awareness among those who can benefit from them, with clear information about how they differ from commercial tariffs.
As a self-funded charity, Which? fully understands the inflationary pressures businesses are grappling with. But we also know there are meaningful actions within their power to make life easier for consumers. Over the coming weeks and months we will be encouraging business to do just that - and calling them out when they don’t.
Rocio Concha is Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.