/ Shopping

Real consumers – does older always mean wiser?

Some real consumers

The ideal consumer is a myth. Our new report examines the characteristics of people who make the best shopping decisions. Do you believe that older people make better choices?

Our choices as consumers are becoming more and more important every day. Stagnant wages, combined with the rising cost of living, mean that making the wrong decision can be more costly than ever.

And we are increasingly taking responsibility for things that used to be decided for us. Many of us are making decisions about how to save for retirement, and public services give us more options than ever before.

Yet new Which? research has found that many of us do not always make the best decisions.

Last year, our research showed that people in the UK are missing out on £13bn a year by not moving our savings from low-interest accounts. We also know that over half of working people are not currently saving for a pension even when we all know we should be.

Who is the real consumer?

Yesterday we published our report into consumer literacy, looking at how good at being consumers most people are. The report examines whether the ideal consumer, who never makes mistakes, actually exists.

We created a model of an ideal consumer and conducted a survey of over 5,000 people, comparing their responses to our model. Our sketch of the ideal consumer was divided into three sections: how skilled consumers are in their shopping, how knowledgeable people are about their consumer rights, and how engaged people are in the processes of shopping.

Older, smarter, richer

The results we found are clear – only one in every 250 people even comes close to being an ideal consumer.

We found that older, more educated people with higher incomes are the most likely to be ‘good’ consumers (ie in the top 25% of the population). Younger, less educated people with lower incomes are more likely to score poorly (ie in the bottom 25%).

The most interesting thing we found is that older people, despite scoring better than younger people overall, don’t score much better in terms of their knowledge and skills. They are much more engaged in their purchasing decisions than their younger counterparts, however. This suggests that older people just make better decisions, despite not necessarily being more equipped to do so.

Do you think that older people tend to make better consumer decisions? Is it because older people tend to have more time to spend on making decisions? Or does this show that older really does mean wiser?


Mobile phone contracts are a good example. Young people are more likely to acquire a subsidised free handset and pay a hugely inflated monthly charge for the service, whereas older people are more likely to pay full price for a SIM-free handset and pay a modest monthly price for the service. The latter is usually the much cheaper option in the long run, but young consumers are often taken in by the “buy now pay later” consumer debt culture that is so prevalent in the UK (and US).

I don’t think the issue is age related at all.
There are lazy or thick older people, there are lazy or thick younger people.
There are smart older people, there are smart younger people.

Whatever age you are nowadays you need to keep your eye on the ball more than ever. Those who push and push are racking their brains to come up with ever more inventive ways to relieve you of your cash.

If anything it’s more about effort than age.

Mr Peach says:
27 June 2013

How do I know if I’m getting a good deal on my new Iphone 5 contract? It’s £32 a month for unlimited everything and £39 squid up front payment.

Mr Peach,
I would think by making comparison with all the other offers you researched of various alternatives and different suppliers.
You did do that didn’t you?
Or did you make the mistake of expecting someone else, like “which” to do that for you?

“Which” offers a useful but general guide based on the experience of other consumers. There is no substitute for checking things out for yourself, perhaps in conjunction with general “which” information.

Mr Peach says:
27 June 2013


Well…I asked my phone company and they said no other provider would give me a deal as good as that! I trust them, I don’t think they could lie about that — the phone calls are recorded after all.

Also, surely it is the job of “which” to look into these things for me, as a young consumer? If not I want my money back!

My personal feeling is that I would need to justify to myself why I would spend £413 p.a on staying in touch with people. My wife has a ZTE Android phone bought of the Net for just over £200 and with Giff-Gaff pays £10 per month for all the calls, texts and downloads.

Perhaps a costing of brand name and style is the difference of around £300 a year after phone purchase.

I am rather saddened that the obvious reason why the young do not perform aswell as older sections is not mentioned.

One of the obvious things that may well skew results is that young adults have the judgement making area of the brain still developing up until as late as 25. Any survey that does actually explicitly mention this fact is doing a disservice to its readership.

“COX: Is this idea that the brains of 18 year olds aren’t fully developed a matter of settled science?

AAMODT: Yes. The car rental companies got to it first, but neuroscientists have caught up and brain scans show clearly that the brain is not fully finished developing until about age 25.

COX: To not be too clinical in the spin that we put on this, what parts of the brain are we talking about and what changes happen between the ages of 18 and, let’s say, 25?

AAMODT: So the changes that happen between 18 and 25 are a continuation of the process that starts around puberty, and 18 year olds are about halfway through that process. Their prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed. That’s the part of the brain that helps you to inhibit impulses and to plan and organize your behavior to reach a goal.

And the other part of the brain that is different in adolescence is that the brain’s reward system becomes highly active right around the time of puberty and then gradually goes back to an adult level, which it reaches around age 25 and that makes adolescents and young adults more interested in entering uncertain situations to seek out and try to find whether there might be a possibility of gaining something from those situations. ”

So scientific research tells us that a proportion of the population have brains that are effectively still developing the important skills needed for good judgement and we have a report asking is it education? I can also tell you that the brains ability to make good decisions also can decline with age so finding that a mid 50’s well of person is best is actually best is not a great surprise.

Discussing how to improve peoples performance overall should actually acknowledge these age related attributes and requires answers to meet the needs.

However overall the other thing the survey does not provide is any information on the questions asked which would be helpful in deciding if the survey is rigorous in format rather than in the manipulation of the resulting data. Any chance of seeing the survey?

The young have different priorities, and generally fewer responsibilities than older people, so will tend to make judgements on different bases. However, I look at the way my offspring buy things with admiration. For example they routinely use the internet and mobile phone apps to find the cheapest source for a product, they use Tastecard to get 2-for-1 restaurant meals when they go out, they buy furniture on ebay and resell e.g. one-off use clothing like a cocktail dress after use, and they negotiate very good mobile phone contracts (threaten to leave the provider who then offers a much better deal).
They aren’t alone in this attitude of prudent purchasing and negotiating. This attitude possibly helps develop that part of the brain that handles decision making?! As someone above pointed out, it’s probably as much about attitude and willingness to make an effort as anything.

Sophie Gilbert says:
3 July 2013

I would argue that you may (emphasis on “may”) be wiser if you are older by virtue of having had a chance to make more mistakes and hopefully learned from them. There the difference may end. I certainly consider myself wiser now than I used to be and I fully intend to continue to get wiser as years go by. :0)

I agree – nothing beats experience and that contributes to being wise, so being older should help. You also have to have a logical mind to be wise, and that is not age dependent. The young have more chances these days, I think, to get experience because of the communication tools they embrace and the opportunities available to them, so have a better start than previous generations.

It doesn’t take much science to reach the conclusion that older people make better decisions through experience and daft people make poorer decisions through poor judgement.