A look at consuming passions in Europe

European consumers are less prone to buying luxury goods, but they are keen on new technology and most have money to spend despite bewailing the crisis.

Let’s hear from consumers themselves how these habits came about and most intriguingly, on what’s new with these obsessions given the economic backdrop.

Key trends

  • The great British barbie;
  • On your bikes!
  • Cheap is beautiful;
  • Home is where the beach is;
  • Body illustrations;
  • Talk of the town – and it’s not all about recession.

Commercial opportunities

  • Stay in touch with youth media, blogs or young family members to understand where younger consumers are at. Their entertainment requirements can change faster than the weather;
  • It is vital that marketers continue to engage with young audiences to build a loyal consumer base as young people are the most brand-conscious consumer group;
  • Do not neglect older consumers, their likes are less changeable but they have more money to spend on them and tend to buy quality – at least the second time around, when cheap has disappointed them;
  • Keep the lipstick effect in mind throughout the economic slump. Many smaller treats may mount up higher than one big purchase.


They are getting older, are keen to stay fit and like to live well. European consumers have everything they need but can still be persuaded to buy and spend money if the product or service interests them, is good for them, helps the environment or is simply cheap and therefore irresistible.

Outdoor and social activities, especially during the warmer months, are mushrooming across Europe, with street parties, fireworks, city beaches and blade nights (with streets cleared for hundred of roller bladers) a regular feature now.

In England, the barbecue is stoically performed throughout spring, summer and autumn, despite the mostly inclement weather. Holidays are increasingly becoming a chance to keep fit and cycle, especially for the older generations.

For those who have little money and still want to make a style statement, tattoos are becoming the inevitable answer – after all, most footballers are now walking works of art. And Twitter offers instant communication gratification.

The great British barbie

As the “barbecue summer” promised by weather forecasters has so far remained miserably elusive in England as in most other European countries, a recent survey of 2,000 people showed that 41% of people assumed it was illegal to barbecue in public areas, with the majority holding them in their own back gardens.

British newspaper, The Guardian, finds that “it looks like BBQs are the new picnic, burgers are the new baguette and kebabs the new quiche!” The standards agencies for English meat in their blog simplybeefandlamb.co.uk have taken things in hand and compiled a map of the best public barbecue spots in England to support this British passion that British adventurer and TV presenter Ben Fogle sums up as follows: “the Grillers Safari Campaign combines two of my greatest pleasures; enjoying the great outdoors and eating quality food.

I want to encourage people to unleash their inner adventurer and take their barbecues out on the road this summer. With so much beautiful scenery on your own doorstep you don’t need to travel to the Antarctic or row across the Atlantic for adventurous alfresco meals.” Thus, the British passion for barbecuing not only provides good food and fresh air – it also helps consumers to save money in these troubled times.

On your bikes!

“It’s a lovely feeling pedalling out of the port carrying everything you need. It seems natural to ride on the right in France. Bowling down the hill into the village of Roscoff…a nice bay, beaches, harbour, old lighthouse, church tower, restaurants…” Who could resist this introduction to an ode to cycling on the English “Cyclotherapy” blog? Apparently, not many can. Cycling is becoming a widespread passion across Europe, from the ciclistas crossing the Spanish Sierras, those organised in groups like ciclistas urbanos to the endless trek of wheeled tourists following the Danube to the Black Sea.

While the Netherlands have always had an active cycling population, countries like Poland and Sweden are now discovering the bike as a source of sports activity and wellness. The demographic factor makes cycling even more interesting – older people find it an easy and pleasant way of keeping fit, although there are also plenty of aficionados who think nothing of mountain-biking up Montblanc. But, in accord with most average saddle tramps, our blogger concludes: “It’s not my idea of fun to be on the bike for more than two hours at a time – especially in France where there are bars and cafes and restaurants and viewpoints and beaches…I don’t care if that makes me a wuss [weakling]”.

Possession of bicycles in selected Western European countries: 2003 and 2008
% of households

Source: Euromonitor International from national statistics.

Cheap is beautiful

The crisis has finally made this the age of the discounter. German food discounter giants Aldi and Lidl are covering the continent with their low-price stores, and consumers love them. In Germany, Euromonitor International data shows that discounters are selling 46.5% of wine drunk locally. Since German wines tend to be pricier, their sales have decreased.

For the first time in ten years, Germans are also returning to buying less organic food according to an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung national newspaper. During the first six months of 2009, German consumers spent 4% less on organic food than in the comparable period of 2008. German tabloid, Bild, offers gourmet recipes for five euros and under.

The top German consumer electronics chain, Saturn, now has a new slogan: “We hate expensive” which, despite its grammatical limitations, seems to be hitting the consumer nerve. The German retail industry remained stable during the first six months of 2009, with the gap between cheap basics and premium products widening. While there is growing demand for Argentinean beef, most consumers are buying at the bottom end of the price scale.

Home is where the beach is

As the tourism industry is experiencing contractions in this crisis summer, more European consumers are enjoying beach life right where they live, taking their swimsuits to the local lakes like in Geneva, or to a newly “re-natured” river Isar running through Munich. You don’t even need to be on holiday in Zurich in order to enjoy the city beaches, known as “Badi”. This is where the young and the beautiful spend their lunch breaks and have their after-work-parties, where the leisurely 50-pluses get an all-year tan, and young mothers drink their lattes.

Even the English Guardian newspaper has cottoned on to this little haven. “The best way to spend a hot day in Zurich is lake or river swimming. The state website lists the daily water temperatures and facilities available, and by night many turn into relaxed bars”. In the oldest of these swimming pools along the river Limmat, the women’s “Badi”, which dates from 1887, men aren’t allowed in until the evening in the “barefoot bar”. Women are enjoying the separation with shiatsu massages, yoga and topless sunbathing. They sip lemonade with lemon balm and mate tea.

Cheap thrills are also to be had on the city beaches that spring up every summer in cities across Germany, offering drinks, food and cultural events. As the globorati.com blog comments, “although New York City transformed Central Park into a beach earlier this summer, Paris can still claim to be the city-beach trendsetter, however. Now in its eighth year, Paris Plages (that’s français for “beaches”) turn the banks of the Seine into a sandy retreat.”

Cars – yes …but keep them small

In Britain, 120,000 cars have now been replaced under the “scrappage” scheme which, in exchange for having your old car or van scrapped offers a £2000 discount against a brand new, first registered to you, car or van. In the UK, the government contributes £1000 and the manufacturer contributes the other £1000. As in other comparable country schemes, it is almost always small cars that benefit from the government subsidy.

The motoring.co.uk web site reports that the Ford Fiesta was the top selling model in the UK, achieving this status in eight of the last nine months, as the small family/compact car sector shows the most activity. One fifth of sales during July involved people taking advantage of the scrappage incentive scheme. In Germany, two thirds of all new registrations were small cars.

Here Fiat was the winner with a 219% increase and 28,000 cars sold, according to Germany’s tabloid Bild. Only VW and Opel sold more cars over the whole period. Meanwhile, Mercedes cars are being given the cold shoulder by consumers – the company is entering the 3-cylinder arena, while BMW is saying goodbye to Formula 1. Small, quiet, green and slow seem to be the future of motoring.

Body illustration

Once the privilege of tobacco-chewing seadogs and pirates, the body tattoo is now as commonplace as buying a pair of earrings. Tender girls’ arms as well as bulging muscles are covered in symbols, letters, strange scripts and complete picture stories. Some, like the designblogsde.info blog estimate that one in four people are now adorned with tattoos.

The blog considers tribal tattoos and dragon designs to be the most popular type, while the traditional symbols like anchors are coming back as retro fashion. The most popular tattoo location for women is the lower back – at least when they get older they don’t have to flaunt it any more.

The tattoodesignnow website advises: “even though they are popular, most people will end up regretting them. In most cases, those who regret tattoos didn’t think about their design or take the time to choose the best tattoo ….although it is possible to get a tattoo removed, the process is expensive and quite painful”. For those who prefer to keep their skin immaculate, a Swiss designer and a Brazilian tattoo artist have designed a range of tattoo-patterned underwear, to be seen on stylecrave.de

Talk of the town – and it’s not all about recession

Taking pictures with their mobile phones has achieved cult status with growing numbers of younger consumers. Cameras are for the parents, phone pictures are taking over the coolness stakes of the Polaroid, creating snapshots of young people’s lives.

Smartphones are the kings of phone cool, with the iPhone leading and Blackberry not far behind – even for consumers who don’t have to run a business. Touchscreen operation and applications are what makes smartphones desirable. And now the talk is everywhere not just on, but about Twitter. Will it really become the first application to reach one billion users? Is it well on its way to becoming the “Pulse of the Planet”, as an internal company document stipulates? What is apparent is that consumers everywhere are using Twitter, and loving it.

There is hardly a trendy blog that does not have its Twitter link running concurrently. According to Ed Cotton from influxinsights: “If a person wants to fly from SFO to Paris, do several airlines provide that person with real-time pricing if they are prepared to book on the spot? If a person asks the crowd for a recommendation for a digital camera-do brands and retailers respond with suggestions and pricing offers? Twitter could become the commercial pulse”.


Significantly, consuming passions in Europe remain the subject of ongoing consumer debate. An article published in the UK Guardian newspaper, “Do we want to shop or to be free? We’d better choose fast” provoked an unusual number of comments.

While most respondents feel no shame about being “turbo consumers, sacrificing the environment and our own happiness, while losing control of society” and even see it as necessary, there were responses of the more thoughtful kind.

The statement “your watch, jewellery, mobile, MP3 player, bag; the furniture and the fittings; all are brands designed to speak for you” was countered by blogger UKBlaza: “I don’t own a watch, mobile, mp3 player (my laptop does all that), or any jewellery. You don’t need all of the gizmos. I live by this: If you realize that you have enough you are truly rich. A plasma screen will not improve my life, a walk in the countryside will.”

One final consuming, romantic passion – back to nature.