Shopper Experience

To keep up with changing shoppers, focus on the journey

WSL Strategic Retail's Wendy Liebmann shared key characteristics of today's consumers at NACDS Total Store Expo.

A shopper looking at an aisle

Shoppers will lead you to the future. (Photo by Mohamed Hassan, used under a Creative Commons license)

How have you changed in the last five years?

For professionals considering how to connect with consumers, it can be helpful to think about how habits changed amid a pandemic and the growth of digital experiences.

“At this moment in time, it’s really valuable to remind ourselves of how our lives have changed and take that with us as we think about our businesses,” said Wendy Liebmann, CEO and Chief Shopper of WSL Strategic Retail during a presentation on Monday at the National Association of Chain Drug Stores Total Store Expo in Boston.

This certainly plays out in how shopping behavior has changed over the last five years.

To name just a few of the modes that have grown: Shoppers are ordering online, picking up items, then sticking around the store to shop. More shoppers are using subscription services. QR codes are prevalent in stores. Gaming is not only a space for entertainment, but a gateway to a wider experience that includes shopping through the metaverse. Cryptocurrency is a payment option.

There was change happening pre-pandemic, it accelerated when COVID-19 arrived and it’s not going away.

The period of re-emergence from the pandemic can bring another moment of big shifts, and it's not only about the return to stores. Shoppers are experiencing a duality, Liebmann said: There’s uncertainty about what’s ahead, both in terms of the economy and the pandemic. But at the same time, shoppers are guided by the more insistent feeling that, “I want my life back.”

Liebmann described key characteristics of consumers today, as compared to eight years ago, from WSL research titled How America Shops.

The shopping population is increasingly younger, with nearly half being under the age of 40. It's more diverse, and families are larger. With 18% growth in the last eight years, Gen Z and millennials are in the driver's seat for trends.

“It’s the younger population influencing the rest of us,” Liebmann said.

Shoppers are being more particular about their purchases during a period of rising prices amid inflation, and seeking longer life out of those products that they do buy. Nearly half of shoppers surveyed were more cautious, while almost four out of 10 shoppers said they are cutting back to pay for basics. The elevation of price to the priority level isn't absolute, however. At the same time, one in five shoppers said they will still cut back on certain items to pay for products they believe are worth it.

For a brand of retailer, this “redefines” the competitive set, Liebmann said. It’s not just a question of competing against brands who sell similar products, but also for overall share of a consumer’s wallet.

Shoppers are stressed. When it comes to wellness, shoppers cite stress and anxiety as the top area they are seeking to treat. Six out of 10 Gen Z respondents feel they are managing this condition.

Shoppers are taking a more holistic view of how they take care of themselves. This means not only general considerations about combating illness, but also eating healthy, drinking water and seeking continuous improvement. They are constructing a framework for wellness, and adding products and services within that.

Shoppers are also “revolutionary,” said Liebmann. When shoppers are making buying decisions, they have elevated expectations not just about the products they shop, but also how companies treat workers and serve their communities. They seek brands and retailers that align with their values, and show they are caring for others.

Shoppers are turning to a wider range of stores and commerce experiences. The number of channels shoppers engaged in a three-month period increased 37% over the last eight years, Liebmann said. As surfaces expand, there are room channels to work together. Liebmann shared that two-thirds of shoppers who go to a store for curbside end up parking the car and going into the store. Pickup that starts online can drive in-store purchases.

There are also opportunities to expand the number of surfaces where a brand reaches consumers by selling directly, and through social media. Livestreaming is becoming a tool to broadcast sales events.

“It’s not just the ecommerce revolution we’ve seen over the last decade or so, it’s the way that delivers new points of connection,” Liebmann said.

Consumers and retailers approach these shifts in different ways. For instance, while a brand must align inventory and distribution for each channel, a shopper doesn't think about how a product gets to them. Rather they are only considering what experience will deliver the right product for a given moment and mindset. At times, they may need to obtain a product on a set date. At others, they may be fine waiting and want to do research, or browse in-person. They are looking to shop for “whatever they want, wherever they are," Liebmann said.

For shoppers, the ease of switching between modes is designed to be easy. After all, convenience is the goal. But the changes taking place create complexity for brands and retailers. Don't lose sight of the fact that the goal should be meeting shoppers where they are.

“For all of those who are manufacturers, brands, you are not the focus anymore,” Liebmann said. “What you need to understand and retailers need to understand is the journey because that journey has become so much more fragmented.”

The trick is to make sure that adding more layers and even products to that journey doesn’t make things messier for shoppers. Rather than crowding the digital shelf, create human experiences to offer connection along the way. To determine the right approaches, pay attention to where shoppers are, and how their lives are changing.

“Shoppers lead you to the future if you follow them,” Liebmann said.

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