Q: Where are we now compared to one year ago in terms of consumer behavior and psychology insights? What did we learn from the past year?
One of the important themes for us to understand is that shoppers are willing to do what it takes to maintain their lifestyle while spending less. They're smart, they're savvy and they're resourceful. I've seen literally hundreds of shoppers over the last year and I'm always impressed with the creative ways that people are going about cutting budgets, but also trying to maintain a certain level of lifestyle and to feel good on how they're caring for themselves, their families and their homes. Some of the ways shoppers are doing this include shopping less frequently, shopping around for the best deals and perhaps trying new brands or trying private label. What's key also is that shoppers are looking to the marketers, retailers and brands to help them do so. There is a growing sense of what I'm calling "recession fatigue." People are getting worn out to have to pinch pennies and think about every cent they're spending. As a result, I've been seeing this expectation and need from shoppers to have retailers and brands provide them with solutions not only to save money, but also to maintain a lifestyle, or at least feel good about what they're spending or buying for themselves and their families.
I think the fundamental emotional benefits that shoppers seek from retail and shopping experiences don't change. What does shift is how we go about getting those needs met and this is where we've seen a lot of the shifting. If I go into a store, part of what I am trying to do and the emotional benefit I want to feel is that my family is well taken care of. I want to feel like I'm a good mom. Such self-centric emotions around who I am and what kind of person I am stay the same. But how I am getting those needs met will change based on the circumstances. I think what we've seen is that as wallets have tightened and as the economy has challenged a lot of shoppers, they're trying to find ways to meet those emotional needs, in unique and very resourceful ways.
Q: How will this affect the messaging we give them?
It's messaging, but it's also products, innovation and merchandising. I've been hearing a lot about shoppers trading down. But shoppers don't want to trade down! It doesn't feel good when you're buying something that you feel is substandard for your family or isn't meeting the standard that you have previously. It feels terrible. It doesn't feel like you're being a good mom and it doesn't feel like you're being a good provider. It also doesn't feel like you're doing the best for yourself. I think in the past the only option when times are tough was to buy something cheaper. But shoppers have a lot more options now. We're seeing a lot of retailers and brands out there providing solutions that offer low prices, but also style, design, quality, great flavor and performance. Shoppers are now expecting those solutions from retailers and from brands.
Q: Pricing has obviously been a big issue given the economy, but are you doing any research around what attributes consumers are most concerned about?
We do. We do it across different categories for our clients and we see a lot of different things. The themes that we see are those we've been talking about. It is still very important to continue the low price messaging since it gets people's attention, particularly when budget is something that's top of mind. But what we're seeing again, is shoppers aren't just looking for an opening price point - they're not seeing value as price in a vacuum. We've done a lot of research in home care, on items such as laundry detergent, dish soap and dishwashing detergent. A consistent message that we've heard across this category is that it's not a good deal to me if it doesn't work the first time. If I open my dishwasher and the dishes are dirty, it means I have to redo them or wash them by hand. In this case, I don't care how inexpensive it was, I'm never buying that product again. While shoppers want a low price for sure, they're much more demanding when it comes to the quality of the product. It goes beyond a functional need; it's also an emotional benefit as well. If I buy a dishwasher detergent and it doesn't work, I'm not feeling very good about myself at that moment because I made a bad choice. I don't think we understand well enough as an industry how those emotional benefits really direct shoppers' behavior.
Q: How do we try to decipher and understand the shoppers' emotions and behaviors?
A lot of my work is around the emotional lives of shoppers, their expectations and the benefits they're looking for. You have to use a lot of unique types of research. You can't just ask somebody "did you feel happy when you did this?" You have to use more indirect methods and psychological techniques where people can indirectly talk about or indicate the emotions and motivations that are really driving their behavior. For me personally, I don't like to use surveys by themselves. Again, you're asking very direct questions about things that are difficult to articulate, difficult to admit to, or to identify in yourself. So if you're asking those questions directly, you're either going to get no response, or you could get a response that's inaccurate, or at worse misleading. If you're building a foundation of knowledge about your shoppers, the last thing you need is false information because that's going to exponentially create problems down the road when you create messaging or create merchandising and other experiential aspects. When we use surveys, I prefer that we also mix in more qualitative methodologies as well so that we can cross-reference and cross-validate. Being a psychologist, I have a certain bias in the methodologies that I like to use. Specifically when we're talking about emotions and needs and the underlying motivations, I prefer to use projective techniques - to use things like visual representations of our experiences, of our feelings, of our thoughts, to use narrative, to use personification.
Q: So where do you see us going in shopper marketing?
I read a lot of studies over the last year about how shoppers have fundamentally changed and are never going back to their old ways. I don't agree with that for a couple of reasons. First of all, we see a history of this kind of tightening of the belt, then loosening of the belt when things get better. If you look across the globe at financial crises in the 70s, 80s, 90s, we can see the historical reference that behaviors do tend to shift back. Also, I noticed that a lot of the studies are based on self-report by consumers, which I think should be taken with a grain of salt. As a psychologist having worked with a lot of people who are going through their own personal crises, if you ask them when in the midst of a personal crisis if they can imagine things getting better, you always hear no. No, I can't. It's very difficult for people in the midst of a crisis to see the light at the end of the tunnel, or see that things might change or be different. So I think when you rely on self-report in the middle of a crisis, you're going to get the report that no, I'm never going back to that behavior again. In general, we'll see that as the economy loosens up and as people don't feel the need to budget quite as tightly, we are going to see some movement back towards more spending. Tied to this is the idea of price versus convenience. At some point, shoppers are going to shift whether they think it's worth doing all the extra things to get lower prices (clipping coupons, finding deals online, shopping across multiple channels, etc.) because they do come at a cost of spending time on other things. We're going to start to see the shift as the economy loosens up and people are going to say, it sure would be nice to spend more time with my family or take care of the yard versus spending all my time pinching pennies and finding the best deal.
Want to learn more about shopper marketing?
Find out how Dr. Gray's colleague Peter Viento uses shopper marketing insights to support creative at retail. Peter is the executive creative director at Saatchi X in New York and is a featured speaker at this year's Digital Signage Content Strategies Summit, to be held on April 12th and 13th in Las Vegas. For details on the conference, visit http://www.strategyinstitute.com/041210_dscss5/dsp.php.
(Full disclosure: The author of this article works for the Strategy Institute, the producers of the Digital Signage Content Strategies Summit. WireSpring has sponsored Strategy Institute conferences in the past, but is not involved with the conference mentioned in the article. WireSpring did not receive any financial compensation for publishing this article.)