Westpac-Melbourne Institute index of consumer sentiment was released revealing that consumer confidence has fallen to its lowest in nine months.

This declining confidence has been mirrored by the results of the American Express future of consumer spending survey that found while Australia avoided the worst of the global financial crisis, 51 per cent of all consumers are now more cautious when making a purchase.

It also found that nearly 70 per cent have changed from one retailer or bank to another in the past year to secure a better deal, while 75 per cent of Australians were now “cost conscious” ahead of “quality driven” when making purchase decisions.

Rachel Stocks at American Express said there is a new breed of Australian consumer being defined by financial insecurity, a concern for the environment and a desire to challenge the status quo of the retail marketplace.

“Australians are torn between their hearts and their hip pockets,” she said.

“Consumers are in favour of more meaningful, local and ethical consumption but sometimes find it financially hard to support, especially when goods can be purchased online at a time when the Australian dollar is so strong.”

American Express said consumers are also growing increasingly concerned about the environment, their local community and ethical production and consumption.

When asked to list their expectations of a brand, 67 per cent of respondents chose ‘trustworthy’, 52 per cent said ‘responsible’ and  33 per cent said ‘environmentally friendly’

Nearly half (47 per cent) of those surveyed said that they now buy more ‘home-grown’ goods than they did a year ago, and among Generation Y there is a shift from ownership to access, with many opting to rent, loan or swap goods.

According to the American Express survey, this trend towards more neighbourly, sustainable and ethical consumer behaviour has coincided with a seemingly contradictory exchange-rate-driven spike in online purchases from overseas.

The American Express future of consumer spending survey of 1,000 Australians found a third of all consumers now do more of their shopping online than they did a year ago.

This growing online trend has led to the emergence of an entrepreneurial consumer who is sourcing cheap or rare items specifically for online resale.

However, while Australian consumers may be searching for online bargains, the American Express survey indicates they are also looking at the ethical credentials of the goods they buy.