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The post-pandemic reawakening of my ‘Shopping Life’

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Six months into the pandemic, in the first of many How America Shops research studies we conducted, 52% of a national sample of shoppers said they were proud of how they were

Wendy Liebmann

Wendy Liebmann

managing. As the pandemic raged on, decimated populations and transformed everyday retail, these Americans were figuring out how to cope, and were proud of it. It didn’t matter their age or income, their ethnicity, or where they lived. It was a sentiment, a mindset half the population expressed.

That was the first sign of what would ultimately become a new way we needed to understand and engage with shoppers as they — and we — move into year three, into the reawakening of what we call Shopping Life. Their Shopping Life.

I want my life back.

But not that life.

As we’ve moved through the last two years, many now tell us, “I want my life back.” Interpreted in its most obvious way, it would be easy for marketers and retailers to assume that shoppers want their lives back the way they were. But our research will tell you many do not. What they want instead is “my life back, the way I want it now.” A life where they have flexibility to work where and how they want, where they have less everyday stress, a greater sense of emotional well-being and purpose, and affordable access to products and services that help them, and their families, stay healthy. An “easy, meaningful, well life” — not my old life.

I want to save time.

But I am shopping in more places to do it.

Consider that even before the pandemic — way before it, in fact — shoppers told us that time was increasingly a priority. Saving time. Making life easier. Less stressful. Shopping faster so they had time for other things they wanted to do. In 2016, 57% said that. One retail client saw the solution as providing everything under one roof — one big shop, every week or two for their busy families. We said, “That’s not what shoppers are saying.” Even then we saw the contradiction emerge. Even then we saw shoppers were beginning to shop more places — not fewer. To pick up things wherever they happened to be, to do less of the big shop and more of the many shops.

That’s even more evident today, where 47% of the population tells us they buy “spontaneously” — wherever they happen to be — because it’s faster, easier. It could be a big-box retailer, a small box, specialty retailers, e-commerce, BOPIS, both, all. In our latest research, people tell us, on average, they bought from 11.9 different channels in the last three months, compared to 8.7 in 2017. A 25% increase. COVID forced them to experiment with e-commerce, with drive-thru, gave some time to try live streaming and other forms of social shopping. Many shopped more at smaller formats, like Aldi, Lidl, Dollar General, Wal­mart Neighborhood Market and City Target, where more edited choices made shopping for everyday essentials easier, faster. And that all left time for shoppers to spend time how they wanted to. Sometimes that even meant shopping at places and for things that really mattered to them (beauty, health care, pets, home, fitness). More, not less, makes life easier.

I want to live a more purposeful life. But

companies need to do their share. Or else…

Before the pandemic, four out of 10 shoppers told us they wanted more sustainable products, clean products, organic products, and were willing to pay more for them. (That number increased to 50% of younger shoppers, Millennials.) Throughout the pandemic those numbers haven’t changed. But what has changed reflects a new social revolution. Now, shoppers tell us that they can only do so much (“one plastic bottle at a time”) and that companies need to step up — big and fast. But even more, they expect companies to be fair to their workers (70%), to provide healthier, sustainable affordable products for all (50%), and support gender, income and ethnic equality (50%). Step up, or else.

E-commerce has been a savior. But I want my store back.

But not that store.

The pandemic unleashed the e-commerce revolution in every category and every retailer. We all recognize it now, finally. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the physical store still matters. But not “that” store of old. What shoppers tell us now is that stores still matter but only if “I have a lot of energy and am feeling good,” then 78% will go to the store. If they’re tired and feeling down, 56% will shop online instead. (That’s an entirely different dimension to shopper segmentation.) When they do go to the store, they want a “happy store,” one defined in ways more nuanced than “an experience.” “Happy” is fast. Happy is where they don’t have to search the aisle. Happy has new and interesting products. Happy is appropriate to “my culture.” A store that is “my way.”

Retail Reawakening, finally

In the “before times,” in 2016, we published two studies, one titled “Build My Magic Box,” the other, “Buying Happiness.” They uncovered a new sentiment, a highly emotional view of what people wanted in their lives and how they wanted to shop as a result. Six years and a pandemic later, what shoppers wanted then has blossomed into a revolution of retail change. This is not about the tussle between digital and physical retail, or which big-box or drug store or grocery store will win, or even who has the lowest price. Shoppers are on a different journey. They are way ahead of us all. Now we need to understand what they are really saying — and want. Listen up.

Wendy Liebmann is chief executive officer and chief shopper of WSL Strategic Retail, a New York-based global consultancy specializing in retail strategy and shopper insights. She can be contacted at [email protected]


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