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Anatomy of a shopper

By Clayton CollinsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 1, 2005

You're just back from a Tuesday-night outing to a new neighborhood Gap store. How nice to have found a call button in the dressing room when you needed a smaller size in those pants you first saw online.

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You stopped at Whole Foods on the way home, drawn in by its artful array of offerings. Then you took a detour to a car dealership to look at a hybrid; that's a cost calculation you still need to make.

You bypassed the mall, a place you seldom go anymore, even for the movies. Much simpler to power up your home-theater system and watch what Netflix delivered than to go to the cineplex there.

If some of that sounds familiar, then you're the New American Consumer - or at least one of the dominant baby-boomer strains - and the archetype that most affects marketer and retailer behavior toward anyone with a high-limit credit card or just a crumpled $20 bill.

Sure, plenty of us still trek to Wal-Mart when the toaster is finally fried or we need a 40-pound bag of birdseed. A hybrid? How about just coaxing a late-'90s minivan to pass inspection one more time. There's retirement to think about.

But a changing economic picture invariably triggers change, broadly speaking, in consumer behavior and in the way retailers and marketers reach out to Americans in their daily lives.

The picture may be changing now. Retail sales leaped 1.4 percent in April, the strongest showing in six months and better than the 0.8 percent gain that had been optimistically expected. And the latest swirl is well under way.

"It's always a convergence of social reactions, the economy, and the competitive retail environment," says Candace Corlett, a principal at WSL Strategic Retail, a marketing consultancy in New York. "It's always that convergence that makes things bubble up."

Some of what's bubbling up now: A push from two demographic dynamos - boomers buying younger(and with more attention to environmental sustainability), tweens and teens buying older and savvier - that will hold purveyors of goods and services to a new level of performance and accountability, experts say.

There's experiential shopping (where the surroundings are as important as the goods); more local stores and small "express executions" of larger chains; more two-way "pre-shopping" (looking online before heading to stores, or eyeing items in stores and then buying them online).

Malls continue to morph into lifestyle centers - walk-and-talk "festivals of eats and treats," in the words of Marian Salzman, executive vice president of ad agency JWT and a consumer trend-tracker.

Some of this is reflected in changes in the pecking order among retailers that's almost a reversal of the long-noted trend away from neighborhood stores to big-box behemoths. Some experts say more single-person households could begin to hinder another recent phenomenon: warehouse-store sales.

Besides the narrowing of the generation gap where shopping habits are concerned, some observers see power shifting to stores that don't have the national profile or standardized offerings of a Target or Home Depot, but that have developed expertise in reacting to local buying trends.

That means shifting fast. Today's consumers are more interested in customization than ever, says Ms. Salzman. Forget blind brand loyalty. Customer expectations are outpacing many brands' capacity to keep up, according to a late-May study by Brand Keys Inc., a New York-based brand and customer loyalty research consultancy.

The categories showing the largest gaps between what consumers want and what brands actually deliver: long-distance providers and mobile phones. Overall best brand ratings went to companies such as JetBlue, New Balance, Poland Spring, BP, Blackberry, Sony, and Apple.

Following the kids' example

Young buyers, in particular, seek out brands that perform, and graze high- and low-end retail outlets, taking a cherry-picking approach. It is a tactic they share with their parents.

"Moms are often cited by their teen daughters as [being] their greatest shopping pals," says Irma Zandl, chief executive of Zandl Group, a marketing consultancy that focuses on youth markets.

In food markets, today's shoppers make short excursions into aisles and rarely even walk an aisle's entire length, according to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, who recently used RFID (radio frequency identification) technology to track shopping carts' paths.

That in-and-out pattern could imply that shoppers are willing to duck into different stores for slight variations in goods. And that amounts to a big opening for smaller, niche stores that have the flexibility to tweak product offerings in ways that megastores - tied to big-volume suppliers - cannot, experts say.