Kathy Gibson reports – The last few years have been challenging for consumers hit by low GDP growth, high unemployment, less disposable income, rapidly-changing technology and climate change.

In these circumstances, building trust has never been more important for consumer-facing companies, says Anton Hugo, retail industry leader PwC Africa.

Presenting results from the PwC Voice of the Consumer survey, Hugo says part of building that trust includes looking after people’s data, and treating both people and the environment with respect.

The survey summarises six imperatives for companies to succeed in gaining consumer trust.

The first is to navigate customers’ expectations of value while managing price increases effectively.

Against a backdrop of rising inflation – a top challenge for 75% of South Africa and 65% of global consumers – cost-effective pricing is emerging as an important and complex factor in gaining consumer trust.

Against this backdrop, consumers are searching for better value for their money: 44% would consider switching from their preferred name brands to more affordable options, such as discount brands and generic products and only 7% of consumers would buy a luxury item with their leftover income after paying for bills and essentials.

Marthle du Plessis, PwC Africa workforce of the future platform leader, says consumer-facing brands and retailers must embrace a more flexible omnichannel strategy to meet consumers’ evolving expectations for a dynamic mix of online and offline experiences.

Marketers should also take note that the distribution of consumers’ preferred shopping locations – either in-store or via remote channels – has remained consistent post-pandemic, with seven in 10 people using shopping apps to compare prices to items but then continue to buy instore.

Indeed, she says consumers are adopting a “phygital” approach to shopping, combining physical and digital channels.

“There is so much information available online that when consumers are in-store their expectation is so much higher,” Du Plessis says. “They expect in depth information about the product, and a service geared around their context and lifestyle.”

The second imperative is for companies to strike a balance between engagement with social media and caution over its credibility concerns.

Jesse Twum-Boafa, PwC Africa consumer transformation leader, points out that social media plays key role in purchasing decisions.

In South Africa, 41% as been persuaded to buy a product or service because of an influencer or celebrity; 45% because of social media advertisements; 41% of consumers use social media to find information, 83% use it to discover new brands, and 82% use social media to seek a review or validate a company before making a purchase.

“However, consumers question its safety and reliability, ranking social media as their second least trust industry,” Twum-Boafa says. “In addition, eight of 10 consumers are concerned about their privacy and data-sharing on social media.”

Companies should aim to use social media to build brands instead of building transactional trades, to cater to a more conscious consumer.

The third imperative is to forge greater bonds with eco-conscious consumers.

Lullu Krugel, sustainability platform leader for PwC Africa and chief economist PwC SA, points out that consumers report experiencing first-hand the disruptive effects of climate change.

The survey reveals that 93% of South African consumers have notice climate-related disruption in their day-to-day lives, with a third noticing it to a great extent.

And close to four in 10 consumers ranked climate change in the top three threats that could impact their country in the next 12 months.

This demonstrates that the environment is an important factor in purchase decisions, as people take personal action to mitigate the impact of climate change.

According to the study, 52% of consumers will buy more sustainable products or products with a reduced climate impact; 41% make more considered purchases; 35% support green political candidates or policies; 34% eat different foods; and 33% will consider traveling less of differently.

At the same time, 88% of customers are willing to pay more for sustainably-produced or sourced goods, at a premium of 11,9%. The metrics they consider when buying sustainable products include eco-friendly packaging (41%), waste reduction and recycling (37%) and having a positive impact on nature and water conservation (37%).

“So it’s important for companies to report and communicate on areas that are not immediately visible,” Krugel says.

Consumers are willing to change travel habits to have less impact on the environment – the challenge is that many options are not freely available. Seventy-six percent would have an appetite for driving an electric or hybrid vehicle; and 28% would have high comfort levels using autonomous vehicles. “So there is an opportunity for companies to provide solutions.”

The fourth imperative is to incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) while maintaining the human element.

Dave Ives, PwC SA consulting leader, says this is particularly important in more complex and personal services.

He points out that AI is well-established within the supply chain, but consumers don’t necessarily realise this. The impact of generative AI (GenAI), is having a big impact in the consumer space.

Worldwide, a substantial number of consumers express concerns about GenAI’s future developments.

“In South Africa, there is not yet any legislation for responsible use, so companies need to govern themselves, and be responsible in how they use AI,” Ives says.

The main concerns around AI are its effect on jobs, and the amount of human interaction consumers will have.

Ninety-two percent of consumers are also concerned about the risk of getting the right information. At the same time, cybercrime and data safety are also concerns.

“So there are powerful opportunities, but also major concerns,” Ives says.

For consumers, product research ranks high in potential AI use; followed by collating product information (60%), providing proof of recommendations (57%), support with written communications (56%), handling consumer services (46%), recommending stocks and provide investment services (45%), executing financial transactions (33%), giving legal advice (33%); and providing a medical diagnosis and treatment recommendations (26%).

“What is important about AI is that consumers are not opposed to it, but they want a human in the loop,” Ives says. “Companies need to strike a crucial balance between tech innovation and the human tough: over half of consumers still desire the safety net of connection to human experts for support.”

The fifth imperative is to safeguard personal data, while using it to elevate customer experiences.

“This is about trust, and offers an opportunity to strengthen trust with the consumer, by closing the knowledge gap on privacy and data use,” says Twum-Boafa.

A massive 92% of consumers say that protection of the protection of their personal data in one of them most crucial factors in companies’ ability to earn their trust.

“There is a social contract for companies to use but not abuse personal data.”

In the last six months, four in 10 consumers have encountered suspicious online activities when browsing or shopping online frequently; and 39% of consumers have had a bad experience purchasing something via social media.

PwC recommends that companies look to responsible scaling the data strategy; use insights to narrow or broaden their brand portfolio; and implement cross channel consistency in their strategy.

The sixth imperative is to create and promote product a portfolio that reflects consumers’ desire for wellness, nutrition and more sustainable food production.

There is a growing interest in plant-based diets, which hints at a rising awareness of the environmental burdens powered by traditional meat production, particularly beef.

Over the next six months, there is evidence of a growing movement of health-conscious consumers aiming to embrace a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, with an increase uptake of dietary supplements, fish and plant-based foods.

The survey finds that affordable nutrition plays as much of a consideration as personal health when making food and dietary choices: people are willing to pay more, but affordability still plays a big role.

In addition, 60% of consumers would find an independent sustainability score on food labelling useful when choosing food products.

Consumer-facing organisations are advised to pay more attention to educating consumers and employees validating information, and adding offerings like supplements.