In the present day, it is becoming increasingly clear that the economically decisive factor is the consumer in the sense of the end user. The fate of all products, which have been manufactured for the market – that is, for sale – ultimately depends on his attitude, his habits and his market decisions.
Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Vershofen, Memorandum, 1934 Quoted from: Bergler, G. Die Entwicklung der Verbraucherforschung in Deutschland (The Development of Consumer Research in Germany), p. 81
The Voice of the Consumer: Founding Idea of the Gesellschaft für Konsumforschung e. V. (Society for Consumer Research)
The Gesellschaft für Konsumforschung e. V. (today: Nuremberg Institute for Market Decisions - NIM) was founded in 1934 by Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Vershofen, Dr. Erich Schäfer and Dr. Ludwig Erhard with the aim of "making the voice of the consumer heard". The founders, who were teaching at the Nuremberg Nuremberg College of Commerce at the time, were convinced that a much more thorough understanding of consumers' attitudes, habits, needs, and expectations was required so that the market mechanisms could meet demand as effectively as possible.
Wilhelm Vershofen and his colleagues were convinced that a better understanding of the demand side of the market, based on empirical data rather than mere assumptions, was in the best interest of all market participants and society as a whole. This improved understanding was to be achieved by conducting empirical studies and analyzing the results for the benefit of academia and practice. The first instrument developed for this purpose was a "purchasing power map," which for the first time provided reliable data on consumption potential in geographic detail, broken down into 500 "districts" in Germany. It was very well received by producers and retailers, but at the beginning of the war was considered a "state secret" and was thus locked away for several years.
New concepts such as "conceived benefits" and a transaction model for analyzing purchase decisions were also developed, with the aim of better understanding consumer behavior. In addition, important principles and guidelines of survey research were established to collect empirical data on consumer behavior at a new level of quantity and quality. Furthermore, an organizational and personnel infrastructure for conducting extensive representative surveys was established.
Even in the first years after its founding, major studies were conducted in various areas of private consumption, with up to 10,000 consumer voices, including verbatim quotes. This granularity allowed for a level of insights that was previously unavailable. This offered valuable insights into consumer behavior for both business and academia. Business representatives in particular became increasingly involved as sponsors and as clients of consumer research.
The 1950s and 1960s: Social Market Economy and "Prosperity for All"
The basic features of the social market economy can be traced back to the "Freiburg Memorandum" of 1942 and authors such as Walter Eucken. But Dr. Ludwig Erhard, who is regarded as the architect of the German “Wirtschaftswunder” or economic miracle, is particularly associated with this concept. On one hand, Erhard sees the consumer as the central actor and as the engine of the social market economy: "I cannot imagine that there is a human being who does not always have new needs." On the other hand, he also sees the consumer as the ultimate beneficiary of the prosperity generated by a functioning social market economy.
Competition is the most promising means of achieving and securing any prosperity. It alone leads to economic progress benefiting all people, especially in their function as consumers; and to the resolution of all advantages which do not result directly from higher performance.
Prof. Dr. Ludwig Erhard in: Wohlstand für alle (Prosperity for All)
Consumer sentiment is a key factor in the success of the social market economy, even though it was not surveyed systematically and regularly until later years.
1970s: The roots of the GfK Consumer Climate
As part of the planning for a European economic order, it became clear that purchasing power data typically collected on an annual basis were not sufficient as an indicator of economic developments, especially since the ability to consume reveals nothing about the willingness to consume. Thus, consumer climate surveys were launched in various countries, including Germany and the United Kingdom. The origins of consumer sentiment surveys in Germany date back to 1974. Until 1979, the surveys were conducted three times a year by GfK e. V., (now NIM e. V.), thus starting a time series of data that continues to this day.
1980s: Introduction of the monthly consumer climate
In 1980, the survey frequency was increased to a monthly cycle, making even more precise data available on changes in consumer sentiment over time and thus allowing economic turning points to be identified in due time. This enabled businesses and policymakers to respond even more quickly to signs of changes in private propensity to consume.
1984: Transfer of consumer climate to GfK GmbH
Since its foundation, GfK e. V. has conducted two types of studies: On the one hand, general studies that served to better understand consumer behavior and consumer decisions in a broader sense and were aimed at the scientific community and the general public. On the other hand, special contract research was conducted for individual companies. These studies had very specific questions about customer needs and benefits, with the aim of (further) developing certain offerings and positioning them in the market. The growing importance of this second type of studies, which were financed by and carried out for individual companies, made it necessary to spin off commercial market research into a limited company. GfK GmbH which was newly established for this purpose in 1984. At the same time, surveys of consumer sentiment in Germany were transferred to this new commercial unit of GfK, which has been carrying out these surveys ever since. Academic research and studies on general and societal issues, on the other hand, remained with GfK e. V. as a non-commercial research institute.
1990s: Expansion of consumer climate after reunification and additional European countries
Following German reunification, the surveys have been extended to the new federal states since 1991. Since then, the GfK Consumer Climate has been regarded as an important indicator of consumer behavior and a guide to economic development across reunified Germany as well.
The European Commission, which helps fund the consumer sentiment surveys, also supported the launch of surveys in other EU countries during this period. It also acts as a coordinator to ensure the comparability of the surveys across the various EU countries.
Since 2023: GfK Consumer Climate powered by NIM
At a time when consumer behavior and future expectations are increasingly under the influence of various overlapping crises, the question of what reasons, motives, and expectations underlie the measured changes in consumer sentiment is becoming increasingly important for business, politics and society.
In order to get to the bottom of this question through additional analyses and data, the consumer climate has been published jointly by GfK and the Nuremberg Institute for Market Decisions (NIM - formerly GfK e. V. and founder of GfK) since October 2023. The aim of the cooperation is to gain an even better understanding of the reasons behind changes in consumer sentiment and to derive additional insights for markets and society.