Brexit could shape consumers’ lives dramatically and significantly – with potential impact on the price, standard and quality of products / services and on consumer rights and protections – and is therefore one of the focuses of our policy agenda. While our colleagues in the advocacy department work on formulating policy positions and influencing the right people to ensure the right outcome for consumers, I have been managing our consumer research programme, gathering views on how the UK consumer landscape might look after we leave the EU.
There are a number of considerations we’ve had to be mindful of whilst conducting research on Brexit. As we all know, any mention of Brexit has the potential to elicit a range of strongly held views. This has meant we have had to be extra careful in how we frame our research questions. By keeping the research focused on the future impacts on UK consumers after the UK leaves the EU, rather than views on the referendum result and the progression of exit negotiations with the EU, we generated insightful and constructive findings whilst minimising the potential for ideological conflict amongst participants.
Secondly, as a charity we are bound by and strictly observe charity commission laws on political activity. To counter the potential for Which? to be challenged on why it was focusing on Brexit issues, we proactively inform participants at the beginning of any research they are taking part in as to why Which? Is taking an interest in their views on this topic and setting out clearly how the UK leaving the EU may impact the consumer topic we are discussing.
The Which? Brexit consumer research programme has been running since September 2017. It is designed to gauge perceptions of and attitudes to the consumer landscape after the UK leaves the EU, and measures consumer expectations and priorities across the economy.
It consists of a quarterly tracking survey and a series of online communities. The nationally representative tracker survey consists of 30 ‘core’ questions and 10 ‘rotating’ questions which we write afresh for every wave of fieldwork, to be able to respond to hot topics and developments in the political landscape. To get a deeper dive into specific issues, we also conducted three 10 day online communities focused on one topic, talking to c. 20 consumers across the country about their views. During recruitment of participants in the online community, we not only set normal demographic quotas, but we also try to get a balance of views towards Brexit, based on our segmentation (more detail below).
One of the first things we did in our Brexit research programme was to gain a better understanding of how people feel about the subject, as consumers as well as citizens. This was an approach we took in the wider policy team too. When putting together the Which? Consumer Charter for Brexit
, that sets out what a successful Brexit would look like for consumers, we tested the draft wording and content with multiple groups of consumers. We then refined the Charter based on their feedback. Similarly, we felt that at the beginning of the research programme we should be confident in our understanding of how, if at all, consumers thought Brexit was going to impact them. We noticed that many of the stories in the news that focused on the views of the UK public still focus on how people voted in the Brexit referendum. We wanted to ask people how they feel about Brexit now and what changes (if any) Brexit would have to their lives as consumers, rather than always linking it back to a decision they made well over 3 years ago.
We worked with statisticians in our team to analyse the results of the first wave of the Brexit tracker to create a segmentation
. We were able to split people into four distinct groups based on their answers to questions we asked about four topic areas:
● perceived impact of Brexit on the prices of goods/services
● the broader impact on individuals/the economy, and
● overall engagement with the subject of Brexit.
Whilst we ask people how they voted in the referendum in the tracker survey, their answers were not included in defining the segmentation model. Using current and forward facing questions, such as,
To what extent do you expect the interests of the following organisations/groups to be represented in official meetings and negotiations about Brexit?
we were able to see how consumer views changed over time as the negotiations progressed, as well as see and changes reflected in the relative sizes of the segmentation groups.
In September 2017 when we first created the segmentation, the group that we called the ‘distant and disengaged’ was the largest, with a third (34%) of the population falling into this group. This group was characterised by their lack of interest and engagement with Brexit and (self-proclaimed) lack of knowledge about Brexit.
We found it valuable to be reminded that not everyone fell into two opposing ideological camps, and that some consumers simply had no strong view on what impact Brexit may have, with most saying ‘don’t know’ or ‘no difference’. This helped shape further research in terms of making clear that we had to fully explain concepts in plain language, choose high salience topics, allow for and take seriously neutral, middle and don't know positions to our questions. It also alerted us to the fact that we should explain all terms used in research, even ones we assumed were common knowledge. For example, in September 2018 we asked respondents in our tracker survey what they thought a ‘no-deal’ Brexit meant. Whilst 60% selected the correct definition, a fifth (19%) said they didn’t know, and the remaining 21% selected incorrect options (such as a transition period being triggered).
Much of our qualitative research on Brexit has involved presenting information to consumers about the potential impact of the UK leaving the EU, such as the implications for consumers if the UK left the EU without a deal
. Whereas on other less sensitive projects we may have been happy to generate this stimulus ourselves, with the help of experts within the policy team we decided to source information presented within the Brexit research from a variety of organisations. These included media outlets (e.g. BBC, The Guardian), business representatives (e.g. the British Retail Consortium) alongside proprietary information from Which?. Using information from a range of sources reduced the risk of us being accused of bias and demonstrated that Which? is not the only organisation to have thought about the opportunities and risks that Brexit presents.
As an organisation, we feel it is very important we conduct research on Brexit as it has the potential to have a large bearing on consumers, especially when considering standards, choice, rights and price. Being unafraid to let participants know from the start why Which? is asking for their opinions - to help us work with government and businesses to deliver that works for consumers - means that researchers and participants are on the same page as to why the research is being conducted.
Whilst we had some initial concerns that conducting research on Brexit may result in quarrelling amongst our participants, so far we have not experienced any disruption. Perhaps this is a result of the online method - perhaps in person things may get more heated? As with our tracker survey, our online communities are firmly focused on forward-facing views (e.g. ‘Having read the stimulus, what is your opinion on what food safety standards will be in place post Brexit?’) which gave participants limited opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of Brexit itself. For every community we also include a dedicated ‘question box’ where respondents can ask Brexit related questions on the topic we are discussing, which one of our policy advisers then answers. We found that allowing participants to clarify anything they didn’t understand, or something else not covered by the stimulus, fostered respect between participants and researcher and helped emphasise the expertise and openness of our team.
Author Bio: George Holt is a Senior Policy Researcher at Which?. She is responsible for undertaking, managing and commissioning qualitative and quantitative research on a range of consumer issues. Recent projects have focused on topics such as mid-life financial MOTS, online marketplaces, mobile coverage issues and of course Brexit. She previously worked at Hall and Partners, a strategic brand consultancy. She holds a MA in English Literature from UCL and was awarded a distinction on completion of her Postgraduate Certificate in Social Research at Birkbeck. She is a member of the SRA and AURA.