July 5, 2020

How have consumer behaviours changed since lockdown and how do retailers need to address these changes?

c. 10 minute read

On the 18th June 2020, I shared my thoughts on this topic on a webinar hosted by Essential Retail... and having pulled together said thoughts, decided it was a good idea to share them further… so here goes:

When looking to understand behaviour change, it’s important to first think about the context…because not only is context everything, it’s also important to consider how different contextual factors play out.

Environmental, social and economic factors are all pretty much out of our individual control…and they tend to drive forced rather than elective behavioural changes. It’s an important distinction, because we know that forced changes are less likely than elective changes to stick around. It isn’t always the case of course: the savvy shopping we saw emerge after the 2008 financial crash, stayed with many shoppers well beyond a time of need as the net value of shopping this way took on a different meaning, and it became an elective change for many, many shoppers.

But staying on forced changes for the moment, there have been plenty of these in the last few months.

From an environmental perspective, many of our normal choices became impossible to achieve:

  • we’ve simply had to turn more to on-line to buy our so called non-essentials, with online sales across all sectors accounting for almost 62% of all retail sales in May, according to the BRC.
  • and even within physical grocery retail, our choice of store has often been forced to change as stock levels and proximity amongst other things have dictated a     different choice for many

From a social perspective, the compulsion to be good citizens, to stay at home, to socially distance etc. have all meant that most of us shop very differently nowadays; and, the more we see or hear about other people ‘doing it differently’ too, the more likely we are to continue to do the same as the social proof heuristic kicks in.

In consequence, there has been a marked changed in grocery shopping habits, as we've spent more, shopped less frequently, and shifted on-line (at least temporarily) at unprecedented pace. In fashion, that we haven’t been able to go to work or go out has meant that we’ve bought fewer clothes and shoes despite the deep promotions we’ve seen on-line. So, the fashion sector has been particularly badly hit, yet the electricals sector has experienced a boom… arguably for the same reasons.

What we buy, as well as how we're buying it has therefore changed significantly, but of course, it’s very hard to predict what, if any, of this will stick in the future because as human beings, we are notoriously bad at predicting our own futures. So, what people may believe, or tell us now, may not hold true as the environmental and social contexts around us continue to evolve and revert to something closer to pre-Covid normality.

Ultimately, it all rests on the net value of our newly adopted behaviours: will they continue to deliver more reward than pain when we perhaps no longer feel compelled to, nor need to stay local, or to do most things on line?  And, as new habits form, and post-Covid reality retains some ‘new normals’ (think ‘more working from home’, for example)  - there is no doubt that some behaviours will stick. But, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we will see many of our old habits returning (the what and the how) - particularly if shoppers decide that they deliver superior net value (reward minus pain) once environmental and social contexts get back to ‘nearly normal’.

That said – it will take time. The powerful shock this pandemic has delivered won’t dissipate over night.

Chances are that the almost frenzied scenes we’ve just witnessed when shops and food service have started to re-open are likely to be something of a blip that only serves to scratch the itch we’ve all had to get back to some semblance of normality. There is also that FOMO effect with lots of shoppers talking this week about not wanting to miss out on the expected bargains - and once those bargains are bought, well… they’re bought! And, what then?

The likely reality of the next few weeks and months is that our personal contexts will see us continuing to experience a rollercoaster of emotional response underpinned by continued uncertainty in the face of what is still, unfortunately a less than clear path forward. 

In fact, a survey from Kokoro who have been tracking consumer sentiment throughout the crisis has revealed that levels of unease within the population has increased over the last few weeks, especially so amongst those who have been furloughed. 43% of furloughed workers said they were feeling on edge / out of control come early June compared with 37% in late April. And, this has coincided with a massive decline in net trust in the government from a high of 33% in March to 0% by early June… and hot off the press… down to -3%by mid June! 

So, a quick bounce back to previous shopping habits is highly unlikely… and, we’ll definitely see variation across different sections of society. 

There are already conflicting perspectives on whether to shop or not to shop, based on revised priorities and circumstances which may or may not linger, as well as personal attitudes to risk and how we respond to stress… both of which are influenced by things like gender and life stage. Research has proven, for example, that younger people are less risk averse which might explain the younger age bias in many of the queues that formed this week. We also know that women deal very differently with stress– taking a more empathetic and cautious approach, versus the more gung ho, let’s get on with it tendencies we more often see in men.

So, this won’t be a one size fits all game. But it will be a game where we are likely to see a rebalancing and indeed a merging of the role of the digital and the physical experience, where the use of technology will become more crucial in delivering a seamless and engaging shopping experience for customers in store. 

In the short to medium term however, consistently wooing shoppers back to physical stores in their droves, beyond the initial itch scratching, will be a challenge… and doing so will require creative effort in order to deliver the positive experience and shopper engagement the physical channel has always relied on to differentiate versus on-line. But what does this mean in practice?

To me, it will be about focusing on 4 key pillars of the experience:

·      Reassurance/ safety

·      Clarity and direction

·      Stress reduction

·      Engagement

Of course, positive experience right now simply has to incorporate reassurance and safety. But, be human… be empathetic: many shoppers will already be a little nervous, so the trick is to calm the nerves and not simply reinforce their concerns. Constant, clinical reminders at every step of the way through store may seem like the rational best response… but this could easily heighten anxiety which will of course, impact negatively on the experience.

Kurt Geiger for example, looks to be hitting the right tone with their colourful signage, couching the benefits of safety in shopping enjoyment terms instead of virus avoidance terms.

And, Lush are offering customers their own soap sample to wash their hands as they enter the shop… a more personable and enjoyable way to stay safe (plus it’s an opportunity for trial).

At the same time, clarity and direction are key. Retailers are obviously duty bound to provide direction for their customers right now – but there is no use having a one way system if floor decals don’t stand out, or instructions are too wordy, for example. Visuals always work better than words… and by the way, if you’re using words, lower case is always easier to read than upper case because we recognise word shapes more easily!

Doing as much as is humanly possible to manage stress levels will also be important. Take queuing for example - a part of the shopping experience that is unlikely to go away for awhile, and one that’s known to increase anxiety and stress for shoppers (especially nowadays). Queuing time is all about perception, so managing this perception is important, and there are a few principles to think about there:

  1. Unoccupied time feels like a long time so providing a distraction for queuing shoppers is a good thing… either digitally via an app, or physically via staff interaction or engaging window displays etc.
  2. People generally just want to get started so think about ways to start the shopping experience early... maybe the app could be a 'plan your shopping trip' app? But it doesn't have to be tech based... a queue manager at Homebase started my shopping experience early the other day when he asked about my plans and helpfully  told me where I could find what I wanted in the store, and what stock levels were likely to be like
  3. And, uncertain waits feel longer so telling shoppers how long they will be waiting, or how many customers are in front helps to reduce perceived queuing time.

But however safe, simple and stress free the physical shopping experience is - without true shopper engagement, it will struggle to rival its on-line counterpart. Safety reassurance will soon become a hygiene factor (if you’ll forgive the pun) and shoppers will be looking for more than that to persuade them that a visit to the shops is worthwhile.

DECODE Marketing is a behavioural science consultancy whom I partner with and we recently ran a study in Germany looking at shoppers’ unmet needs as they move through lockdown. Even in these tough times, it was clear that whilst security and being at ease are high on people’s priorities, people are yearning for joy, stimulation, discovery and inspiration – retailers who can credibly deliver against these needs will create more positive experiences and memories which will support brand equity and relevance that will last beyond these times.

Delivering solutions for shoppers can help stimulate inspiration and discovery, as well as limiting time spent finding in favour of time spent actively shopping. For example, John Lewis does a great job on its the website of showcasing solutions for the ‘night out, in’,and I’m sure we'll see ideas along the same vein appear in store now they’re opening up.

And, Lush are introducing pre-filled sample pots so customers can test products with confidence; they are also going down the phygital route by introducing the LushLens app which lets customers scan unpackaged products to access information without needing to touch the products.

And beyond solutions, there’s been lots of talk about how the grocers have been playing great soundtracks to the delight of their shoppers (even Steph McGoven admitted to dancing in the aisles of Asda on Twitter the other day). And of course, excellent and friendly customer service across all sectors can help fill the void created by having to shop alone. There's lots of annecdotal evidence that shops have almost become social hubs for people over the past months...arguably, there is a new role for staff here to provide some of that much needed social interaction we’re all missing right now.

As I come to the end of my musings, there is of course one final contextual factor that so far has been left unmentioned, that being the economic context and the recession that will inevitably follow on from this crisis.

Interestingly, if not a little worryingly, this is something that many of those who aren’t already unduly affected are seemingly struggling to internalise at the moment. Kokoro’s survey has revealed that concerns over personal finances have actually declined of late from a high of 47% in late March to 36% in earlyJune… and this despite the fact that concerns over the economy as a whole is creeping up and sits at much higher levels. 

So it’s unlikely that even the depressed spending patterns we have recently seen are a reflection of what we might see when the recession really bites. We are likely to see an even savvier shopper emerge toward the second half of this year than we saw emerge after 2008… so, whatever is done now to build strong connections with shoppers at an emotional level becomes even more important.

My very last thought is this… the future starts now. But there are several plausible futures! The job for us is to be able recognise when one of those futures appears to be arriving… and this of course points to how important it will be to…

  • Keep in touch with customer’s and potential customers’ needs and ideals as we travel this journey alongside them
  • Stay close to them… even inviting them to co-create the future with us
  • Be prepared to adapt product ranges, store environments, services and communications with agility to reflect needs and aspirations as they evolve – because if I can make just one prediction, it’ll be that what works this week will likely feel a little old hat in 2 - 3 months time!

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