Shoppers have seen the future and are acting on it

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Never underestimate the strength of the American consumer. That was clear from the very early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. As our world imploded in a matter of weeks, and uncertainty around both health and economic issues roiled the country, consumers got on with it.

Wendy Liebmann

It was evident in the first of our COVID-19 series of How America Shops research in March 2020. The vast majority of the population (85%) was concerned about catching the coronavirus. Many were worried about the implications of the economic shutdown, home schooling, working from home or safely going to work, as well as access to everything from toilet paper to Tylenol. But by April, 52% of the population said they were proud of the way they were managing the crisis. That occurred in a matter of a month.

Four months in, half the population still remain stoic and in control. Many have steeled themselves for the long haul, calling upon all their experience in recent crises — from 9/11 to the global recession to recent social and political turmoil — to find ways to manage this roller coaster of health and economic concerns. And, all the while, many are reassessing and recalibrating their lives. (At least those that can afford to.)

A retail client said recently that it is all but impossible now to anticipate and plan for the future. He said, “We are working off old paradigms or no paradigms at all.” While I think that is true to some degree, I will say that many of the ways Americans are coping today, and will cope in the future — at least when it comes to spending their money — are based on values that were already fast emerging prior to these crises.

Many of the U.S. shopper values that we predicted over the last five years have now come urgently into play. In 2016, in our How America Shops study titled “Buying Happiness” we identified a new value framework that emerged out of the global recession. No longer were shoppers focused on buying “stuff.” Instead they wanted financial stability, less stress in their lives and great well-being for themselves, their family and their community. Even as the economy improved, as job and wage growth grew, Americans focused on the Happiness paradigm. And even as the political landscape became chaotic and issues such as drug abuse and mental health grew, shoppers took control of what they could, by beginning to simplify their lives and their shopping, as we noted in our Future Shop studies. Those values and behaviors have merely intensified and expanded today and have enabled Americans to adjust and adapt in these unparalleled times.

So, here’s what you need to know now.

Three core shopper values define how we must engage in the coming months and years.

  • Happiness. The intensified and urgent demand for happiness is not a frivolous pursuit on the part of shoppers today. It’s multifaceted. It’s defined as comfort, security, goodness, welfare, safety and health. It is expected to be delivered in everything: how quickly and securely people can shop (from fast trips to easily accessible essential merchandise); the shoppers’ continued desire to take care of their health and well-being (from healthy routines and products to sustainable practices which many continue to do); their longing for normalcy (sticking with established brands where they can and familiar routines, like shopping in physical stores, if safe); the fun of discovery (reflected in new brands people bought while in lockdown); and the newly remembered joy of family routines. And finally, ultimately, their happiness is grounded in who they trust — and don’t.
  • Activism. This is revealed in their ability to pivot and adapt, their pride in taking control of what they can. (In the very midst of the pandemic, it was stunning to see that half of the population was dealing with the crisis and proud of their ability to cope.) Control is reflected in how they shop, what they buy, where they shop and how much they spend — including their quick adoption of totally new ways of shopping (from e-commerce to click and collect to social distancing). If brands and retailers don’t deliver, shoppers will move on.
  • Trust. This is reflected in who they now trust (our research reveals it’s essential workers and companies that show humanity) — and who trusts them. Shoppers now ask, “Do you care and respect me?” “My color, my status, my gender?” “Do you enable me to afford what I want/need?” “Can I get it quickly, safely?” “Will it help me to be well and happy?”

Recognize there are new paradigms to guide you. They were already emerging. It just took a pandemic for you to see them.

So, here’s what you need to do now.

Recognize that you can no longer ignore the importance of omnichannel shopping options, and physical store layouts that accommodate shoppers’ needs, not yours. Recognize that there are too many stores (at least the type of stores we have), and that location-location-location (the old retail paradigm) is no longer relevant. Recognize that not only will economic disparity continue (and even be exacerbated, as 41% of shoppers tell us even now they are barely holding on), but social disparity will grow between those who can (and will) work from home and those who cannot. Recognize that the recession has only been delayed, and that two-thirds of shoppers are already preparing to be “frugal” as they plan to cut back, use less, trade down and switch channels across all manner of categories and retailers. Recognize that staying well is now an imperative, not merely a lifestyle choice. Even in these times Americans continue to spend on healthier practices, sustainable products and services — even if it means cutting back on something else. All this is evident in our latest How America Shops research.

It’s not that there are no paradigms to envision and build the Next Normal. There are. There have been for several years. What’s missing is the ability to see them and respond. Shoppers have — and are. You need to follow suit — and fast. What got you here will not get you there. That is clear.

Wendy Liebmann is chief executive officer and chief shopper at WSL Strategic Retail, a global retail strategy and shopper insights consultancy, and publisher of How America Shops and How the World Shops. www.wslstrategicretail.com.


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