A Christmas market with stalls

All I want for Christmas is you. And you. And you. And you…

retail Feb 01, 2022

Christmas is almost upon us. It is a time of giving. Cards. Good wishes. Presents. And cash. Lots of it, given to retailers. The retail experience is now an intrinsic part of festive culture. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Boxing Day and New Year sales are all so common they should be marked on extended advent calendars. It’s an important time for retailers, as their festive sales usually make or break their year. Woolworths, now extinct, made all its profit in December and lost money in every other month. In America $789.4 bn was spent on retail in November and December 2020. In the UK, it was £79.7 bn. Total retail sales in the UK are expected to be up 7.8% this year, with jewellery (18.5%) and clothing (11.4%) retailers the biggest winners. With the chance of further covid restrictions, expect shops to be competing desperately for your attention, to grab as much custom as they can.

What can retailers give back to us, besides that hot water bottle that will make Nan’s Christmas? As it happens, quite a lot, in the form of shopper insights. This is a fascinating field all too rarely mined. It was pioneered by Paco Underhill, the shopping ethnographer. He placed cameras and hid staff in stores to watch customers and observe their behaviour in retail habitats. His classic book, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, would make a great stocking filler for the commercial director or product manager in your life. So here are six shiny baubles of shopper insight that you may be able to use or adapt in your business…

#1 Men and women shop differently.

It’s true. Men enter supermarkets like SAS troopers trying to end an embassy siege. They have a list of names. They know the rough locations of their targets. Their instinctive aim is to get in and out as quickly as possible, evading hostile actors (i.e. other shoppers). Each item is located with the precision of a guided munition, immediately picked up and added to the basket. When the mission is complete, they sprint for the exit. Women are more thoughtful shoppers. They don’t treat lists as checklists, but rather as a series of prompts. The aim is less to acquire the contents of your list, but to emerge with everything needed for the week ahead. They are more attuned to the environment and the stimulus it offers. There is scope for new ideas. Inspiration means considering new possibilities and combinations, which means sourcing unlisted items. Do you treat all genders the same?     

#2 Beware the ‘butt brush’ effect.

There is a retail power law, that the longer a woman spends in front of a fixture, the more likely she is to buy and spend. But there is one thing that breaks this: if someone brushes past them and bumps them. This ‘butt brush’ is devastating for the retailer. No matter how much time was invested, they will lose interest, not buy, and, probably, leave the shop. The lesson? Don’t make your aisles too narrow and try to cram too many things in. Shoppers like space. Don’t crowd or hassle them. The online equivalent of this is the unwanted pop-up. Which leads to…

#3 You may gain from limiting shopping carts(!)

Many Amazon ‘saved for later’ lists have enough items to restock even the most supply chain-disrupted retailer. Saving items in a basket, in-store or online, is a natural part of the shortlisting and decision process. We all add things and then take them out. What we are doing is delaying the hard work of having to make a decision, and reducing the number of variables in the shop to a manageable number. Paradoxically, interfering with this process can boost sales. For example, limiting the number of items customers can add to an online basket, has a polarising effect on purchase intent. It forces customers to quickly assess what are the best and worst items. What do they really want? Pop-ups and in basket messaging about product scarcity, though annoying, accelerates this process of product selection and purchase intent. So if you are stuck with window shoppers, can you stir them to action by creating some FOMO?

#4 People aren’t always ready to buy

No matter how much someone wants something, you have to align your offer to the context of their life situation. This is most easily demonstrated in shopping malls. Why are the rubbish shops by the doors? Why do they change so frequently? It’s simple. When people enter a mall, the first thing they focus on is the change in environment. Is it much hotter or colder? Do they need the loo? Is it busy? How much time do they have? There is a whole stream of questions that could not be raised until they passed through the mall portal. As a result, they have no interest in and barely even notice the first few shops. These tend to make their money from people on the way out, hoping to catch shoppers before they start worrying about whether they need to put their coat back on before they leave. This is why many coffee shops now occupy the portal zone, as they enable shoppers to comfortably pass from one world to another. We saw this truth in BAA airports. World Duty Free tries to trap customers before they reach the richer airport retail experience. But they are fighting a losing battle. What passengers are thinking about pre-security, is security. Post-security, they are calculating how much time they have to spend, whether they need the loo, how hungry they are, what they will need for the flight etc.. Passengers spend the big bucks once their lower order of Maslow needs are met. Often they go back to WDF to shop. Are your customers ready to buy? Do you need to transition them?

#5 Impulse buying is huge

You’re at the till. You see magazines, bars of chocolate, bags for life, batteries, gift cards, and anti-freeze. None of these are your list, because you only popped in to buy a bag of frozen peas. But there’s a fair chance you may be tempted by something. In the States, $18bn a year is spent on impulse shopping. Americans make 156 impulse buys a year, spending over $300k a lifetime on stuff they never intended to buy. In the UK, 78.4% buy impulsively. 22.9% do so on a weekly basis, spending £143k over a lifetime. 65% online shoppers make at least one impulsive purchase a month. One estimate is that it accounts for between 40-80% of all retail purchases. Why? We are addicted to retail therapy and those little pick-me-ups. What can you offer your customers as they check out?

#6 Shoppers are confused nearly all the time

If you ever have the chance to work with a retail shopper planner or analyst, do so. It is both insightful and terrifying. How hard can it be to arrange a few items in a supermarket or retail store? Answer: very. Firstly, there is the basic layout. What goes where? Do you want fresh goods near the door? Or the bakery, so the smells waft out and draw people in? Or the quick consumption goods (sandwiches, crisps, drinks) that people want to pop in for? Do you put the kids clothes on the ground floor to make it easy for mums with prams? Or on the top floor, to keep children away from other shoppers? There are thousands of possible choices, and whichever you choose, will be wrong for different customer types. Then there is the signage. How do you summarise thousands of products in a few words? Do you use the words you know (e.g. dairy) or those consumers use (e.g. milk)? There is never enough signage or good enough wayfinding. When shoppers locate the right fixture, the real fun begins. Finding what they want (assuming it is there) and then being discombobulated with an array of brands, pack sizes, prices, and offers. Everything seems designed to create a perfect storm of confusion, which is odd when you just want a can of tuna! Be kind to your customers and make the shopping process cognitively, as well as physically, fluent.

Why not keep your eyes open as you do your Christmas shopping? You’ll see these and many more. The retail habitat is a rich one. If writers have to people watch in order to create compelling characters, then if you are in the business of selling, you need to become an avid consumer watcher. Just don’t get caught hiding in a fridge. Not just because it’s creepy, but because there is chance you may find another shopping ethnographer already in there…


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