Nine facts marketers should know about the psychology of shoppers

Shopping is one of the nation's favourite pastimes yet sometimes we still struggle to understand why consumers act the way they do.

Questions such as, "why do women shop so differently to men?" and, "why are we happy to spend time wandering around a convenience store, but can’t spare the time in a larger store?" are probably keeping as many marketers awake tonight as they were five years ago.

Drawing on her experience in researching the psychology behind shopper behaviour, Nicola Scrafton, research director at Visuality Group, sheds some light on our (conscious and subconscious) shopping habits and patterns.  

1. Shopping is a skill that we learn

Shopping is a cognitive process requiring us to acquire, interpret and act on information from the store environment. Most of this information is visual, accruing from packs, POS and in-store messaging, although all of our senses are open to influence to some degree: the aroma of freshly baked bread; messages over the PA system; sampling in the aisles; the tactile appeal of products and packaging, and so on.

As with all such processes, shopping is a learnt skill, and our ability to shop efficiently improves with practice.

2. Men are less likely than women to see offers

It’s a simple fact that women are much more experienced shoppers than men. Most women have developed the ability to shop rapidly and efficiently, identifying products and brands subconsciously, "on auto-pilot".

In contrast, men, who are typically less experienced shoppers, need to operate at a higher level of consciousness, actively seeking out products and brands of interest. This means they conduct bigger shops more slowly, and tend to find shopping more tiring.

Despite the fact that men are operating at this higher level of consciousness, they are still less likely to see offers than women. All shoppers are routinely confronted with a sea of offers when in store. Women learn to recognise relevant offers, especially if these are communicated in yellow and red, which have become a short-hand for "value". In contrast, male consciousness is invariably focussed on simply finding the products on their list.

3. Certain categories evoke differing emotions and prompt us to spend more or less time browsing

Our mind-set and attitudes vary hugely depending on the category in which we are shopping. We are typically cheerful when shopping in beer, wine & spirits, pet and baby. These categories have positive associations and we are more likely to treat ourselves or to purchase things for a loved one here than in other categories.  This is a stark contrast to our attitude when we reach household or laundry; we are generally uninterested and may even feel more stressed - we simply can't get out fast enough.

4. We're much happier to walk around a convenience store than we are a larger store

Larger stores are often seen as being too big to walk around - unless of course we have all day. Here we are far more likely to head straight to the products we need rather than spending time browsing.

In contrast, convenience stores seem far more 'manageable' and less daunting, so we’re usually happy to browse the entire store, even if we’ve visited the store just to pick up one or two specific products.

Because of this perceived "manageability", all shoppers are likely to see more in a C-store which means this channel can be ideal for brands looking to launch a new product.

5. Women are more likely to shop accompanied and to interact with products

Women will actively interact with products in store, turning them over and examining them – even going so far as to open shower gels and shampoos to assess the fragrance, before making a final decision.

Men on the other hand stand a long way back from the shelf and rarely pick up a product they are not planning on purchasing.

6. We are more likely to buy a product from an emptier looking shelf

When confronted with a promotional display we are more likely to purchase something from it if it looks as though other shoppers have bought into the deal first. This is known as ‘social proofing’, where we are reassured by the fact that others have bought into the offer.  Likewise, we are reluctant to purchase from an untouched display.

7. There is a reason cosmetics are separated from grocery

When cosmetics and grocery are side by side our attitudes towards them are often "contaminated" by the environment. The positive side of this is that shoppers who have enjoyed a good experience and are in a positive frame of mind may often treat expensive cosmetic products as they would functional products, and quite literally throw them into the trolley. The downside is that, over time, the image of these items can become tarnished and they have difficulty in supporting premium prices.

Manufacturers will therefore usually want to separate premium brands from more everyday health and beauty items, using lighting, floor coverings and other elements in the category environment to support a more premium proposition.

8. We spend far more time in convenience than we would if we did one big weekly shop

We often can't find the time in our hectic schedules to do a weekly shop. This results in us constantly popping in and out of convenience stores all week picking things up as and when we need them. Over the course of the week we end up spending far longer in the C-store than we would have if we had spared the time for the weekly shop.

9. Our loyalty to a store impacts on our enjoyment of the trip, the speed of the shop, and our tolerance

When entering a supermarket to which we do not have an allegiance, we transfer our expectations across from our favourite store. We expect the same standards to which we have become accustomed, in many respects: queues, presentation, space, store layout to name a few, and will become frustrated if these expectations are not met. We will, as a result, be far less tolerant and spend far less time in the store.  

We will only be prepared to invest time and effort in learning the particular conventions of a new store if we perceive it to offer a genuine benefit. An example would be shoppers having to learn that prices are displayed above the goods in Lidl.

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