How Understanding Shoppers Can Save Retail

We need to better understand shoppers. Why? Because retail is in crisis.

Investment in brick-and-mortar stores has declined 30% in the US and a staggering 50% in Europe. In the UK 50,000 of the 500,000+, high street stores are empty, that’s a whopping 10%. But that level can even be higher, double or triple that in some parts of the country. The government in the UK upped its rescue fund to a billion pounds and slashed its rates in the hope of lowering rents last year.

And as if all that weren’t enough, the pandemic has been the final straw. With its lockdowns and restrictions, covid has pushed many shops over the brink and into bankruptcy. If retail as we know it is to return to “normal” – and many, including the HBR have already declared this to be near impossible – it is important to understand what is going on in our shoppers’ brains.



Shoppers, that’s you and me, are changing. We have an insatiable appetite for instant gratification and novelty. More clothes stores are shut down than any other category because sales have gone online. And eating at home is now the norm, other than cheap, fast food stores, so restaurants and bars are suffering too. Both of these trends have been further exacerbated by the pandemic of course.

So if bricks and mortar stores are in difficulty, are we helping our customers to buy online? I don’t even think so. It seems as if we are trying to benefit from their desire to do so. Something rather sinister has been happening. Let me show you.


Capturing Customer Data

Online, even more than offline depends upon capturing customer data. Retailers need it to deliver products of course, but we all seem to have become data mad! We collect masses of information from our (potential) customers and then probably do very little with it all. But in the process, we have surely alienated a few, if not many would-be shoppers, to the point of them abandoning their carts and buying elsewhere.

Shoppers think brands and companies benefit most from their data

According to, shoppers now believe that their data benefits companies and brands more than it does themselves.

Shoppers now believe that their data benefits companies and brands more than it does themselves. That's why they are more and more reluctant to share. Prove them wrong by only gathering what you need. #CustomerData #Shopper #Ecommerce Click To Tweet

In the Janrain report “Brand Trust Survey” 48% of US internet users try to buy exclusively from companies they trust to protect their personal data. But most don’t trust us with their data, and for good reason, it seems. As claimed by Thales, 75% of US retailers have experienced a data breach, 50% in the last year, up from 19% in 2017. Despite this high level and mistrust, one thing shoppers do agree on is that technology has made things better for them.

More than three out of five consumers say retail technologies have improved their shopping experiences, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation. Eight in 10 say that they’ve had better interactions as a result of these technology investments. This is further proof that retailers should be actively seeking out new, advanced retail technologies. And making better use of the data they collect from their customers.


The 7  Sins of the Dark Side of Online Shopping

As previously mentioned, we are collecting far more data then we are using and often doing so in an underhand way. Here are some examples of what I call the seven most prevalent sins of the dark side of online shopping today.


Credit card details for a free trial

Credit card details for a free trial

This is probably one of the oldest scams on the internet. We are asked to provide our credit card details for the free trial of something online.

The excuse is it saves us going back to complete the form when we decide to buy.

The far more likely reason is the hope that we will forget that we tried the product or service in the previous weeks or months. This then allows the company to automatically bill us because we forget to cancel.



Making it impossible to say no

Even when we don’t have to give more than our name and email address, companies make it impossible to refuse their offer. The “Yes” button is usually large, the “No” often in a small font and light grey text.

In the example on the left, they make it even more difficult to refuse by getting you to admit that you already have what they are offering, in this case, enough traffic. Show me a website that thinks it already has enough! We always want more!


Getting more data than we intended to give

Understand shoppers' needs on the contact page

My next example is from Burger King, who make their customers work unnecessarily if they want to contact the company.

They invite you to complete a survey rather than just contacting them. OK, they are offering a free burger in return, which is generous, but I almost clicked on the “email us” button in the middle of the contact page on their website, when I was looking to contact them for a different reason than giving them feedback on their restaurants.

Now I have no problem providing feedback when I have the time, but I would prefer an organisation to do it openly, rather than trying to trick or force customers to respond in this way. Clearly, they are not receiving enough feedback and needed other ways to get the opinions of their customers.

I am surprised by this since fast-food restaurants almost always include an invitation on their bills, to provide feedback in return for a free item on the next visit.


Getting us to download something we didn’t want

Understand shoppers don't read

This trick is used by many software sellers. A large download button is shown on the landing page of the software we intend to install. However, the larger button that attracts our attention is for a different service than the one we have previously selected.

I can only assume they are doing this to increase their revenue by showing several advertisements on their landing page. In this example of the left, both ads that I have highlighted in red, attract more attention than the smaller button in the top left-hand corner for their own product. I can only wonder if their poor three-star rating in the top right-hand corner has been influenced by these games.


Approving cookies without knowing it

Understanding shoppers are lazy

I almost fell for this one, but was so disappointed, as it is from the website of my favourite airline, Swiss. This same “game” is played by their parent company Lufthansa, so I’ll blame it on them.

However, this is just one example of an organisation taking advantage of our reluctance to read things in detail these days. The red button attracts us and many will click it without reading that it in fact permits Swiss to use a person’s data for more than is strictly necessary.



Making it impossible to cancel

Understanding shoppers are lazy

This last example shows what I consider to be a very worrying trend. Many organisations, including Stamps shown here and Apple, make cancelling services a marathon for its customers.

In the case of Stamps on the left, they invite you to go to the “manage account” section or to contact their customer services at specific times. Looks fine, except for one thing. They don’t provide a link! They do, however, provide links to many other pages on the bottom half of the page, mostly for changing services and making payments. It would save customers a lot of clicking through if they had just added the link in their explanation.

In the case of Apple cancellationsI noticed between 4 and 6 steps depending upon the type of cancellation you were looking to make! Talk about making your – soon to be ex-customers work to leave you, and making sure their last impression is less than positive.

Other websites give a “sorry to see you go, but we’d love to see you come back again in the future” message, which I think causes doubt in the minds of some of the people planning to leave. Making sure that people leave with a good perception gives you a chance of them coming back one day. Doesn’t that make more sense than making it so difficult to leave in the first place?


Those are examples of the seven sins of online shopping platforms today. I think we can all agree that these are not going to build trust or longterm loyalty. But then we have to ask ourselves if brick-and-mortar stores have been doing a better job. The answer is no, but you knew that already, didn’t you?

These are the 7 Sins of the Dark Side of Online Shopping. #Shopping #Retail #OnlineShopping #Ecommerce Click To Tweet


Retail Store Experiences

We have all become used to salespeople in-store saying that a piece of clothing looks wonderful on us when it doesn’t, or that we won’t find a lower price at another store, when perhaps not, but we definitely will online! This is when I became a fan of BestBuy, as every time I wanted to buy something, they would check Amazon and give me the lowest price. And I get the article immediately and without paying shipping costs. They at least have understood the priorities of their customers.

Understanding shoppers like price offsOne of my favourite “discount” offers, is from a 99 pence store in the UK, equivalent to dollar stores in the US, Japan, Denmark and many other countries. It advertised this promotion as shown on the right. I actually laughed out loud when I saw it and had to take a photo.

I think we all consider ourselves to be savvy shoppers instore, but I think that this is because we have become aware of many of the sales tactics retailers use to get us to part with our hard-earned cash. And technology is helping in increasing shopper satisfaction.

According to a recent survey, more than three out of five consumers say retail technologies have improved their shopping experiences, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation. Eight in 10 say they’ve had better interactions as a result of these technology investments. This is further proof to proof that retailers should be actively seeking out new, advanced retail technologies.


A Dozen Shopper Desires

In conclusion, I thought it would be useful to end with a list of the things that shoppers today are looking for – in their own words of course:

  1. That you take my perspective and constantly improve your understanding of my changing needs.
  2. Worry more about the value you offer than the price you demand. Sometimes I’ll go for cheap, but not always and these days less often than before because I want excellent customer service.
  3. Be honest and open with me. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Warn me if my order is likely to be delayed, or take longer than usual – as is happening these days thanks to the pandemic. I can understand if you communicate, not if you hide the facts from me.
  4. Only collect the customer data you need when you need it. If I’m happy with your service, I will gladly share more information when you require it.
  5. Don’t try to deceive me with misleading website design; button colours, text that is impossible to read, hidden additional charges or conditions. I won’t feel very proud of myself when I realise I’ve fallen for your “tricks.” But you’re the one who will miss out in the longterm.
  6. And following on from the previous point, don’t wrangle sales from me by making use of my (bad) memory, misunderstanding of subscription or repurchase automation, my laziness in (not) reading the small print, my innate trust that you will do the right thing. You may get the sale but you won’t make a loyal advocate out of me.
  7. Make it quick, simple and easy for me to do business with you, or to stop should I so desire. You never know, I might realise that the grass is no greener anywhere else and come back.
  8. Show me you care and value my business. It doesn’t have to cost much if anything; a heartfelt “thanks for your business” already goes a long way. But occasional treats will get me talking about you too.
  9. Make my life easier whenever you can. Collecting data for the pre-filling of forms is a great help; merely gathering my information for your own benefit alone is not.
  10. Give me the confidence in my choices to remain loyal. I can forgive a mistake, but not a lie.
  11. I care about your employees, your company culture and habits more than ever. If you’re claiming to be carbon neutral, sustainable, eco-friendly or ethical, be so in everything you do. You can’t be half right.
  12. Shopping is no longer entertainment for me, at least not in the physical world. It’s just too risky and worrying. So make my online experience doubly enjoyable. Offer me improved choices, using your algorithms to predict better what I might like. Be honest, today I feel like I am being hounded and hammered by the continued advertising of things I might merely have glanced at! Know me better and your advice will be far superior to your competitors. Now that’s what I call a win-win.
The 12 desires of shoppers today that retail need to answer. Are you? #Retail #Ecommerce #Customers #Shoppers Click To Tweet

What else do shoppers want today? Have I missed any essential points? I’d love you to add to the list I’ve started, so we all can benefit from your ideas.

Is the Future of Retail, Physical or Virtual? Is This Just a Reset or Do we Need a Full Reboot?

Will the future of retail be without physical outlets?

I remember having a very interesting discussion with a new client a couple of years ago on exactly this topic. Like many CPG companies at the time, they were considering online retailing. They were already selling a little online but hadn’t seriously considered it until then.

However, with the move of most major supermarket chains to offer online stores too, plus a few successful online-only stores, such as Amazon in the US and Ocado in the U.K. they were reconsidering just how big they could or should grow their online business.

This discussion happened just a few years back in 2017. Today the question is no longer asked. The pandemic has forced most customers to buy online, at least during the various lockdowns. And many have found the experience both enjoyable and useful.

A recent article on CNBC showed that many major chains in the USA had recorded triple-digit growth in online sales in the first half of this year. But they rightly questioned whether the trend would continue into next year.

They concluded by saying that those retailers who had already invested in online sales would fare better than those forced into it by the pandemic. I agree, as the change in customer behaviour was so fast that it was difficult for those retailers who were not prepared, to catch up and move their sales effectively online.

Is the future of retail online sales growth

However, they argued that people would return to bricks and mortar stores once the lockdown eases and Adobe has found some data that may just confirm this. E-commerce growth appears to be slowing, as the below graph shows.

The future of retail shows slowing ecommerce trend

I remember participating in heated arguments in the past, between sales teams and retailers, about online stores. Retailers thought that it was unfair competition and threatened to delist a manufacturer’s products if they sold direct. No wonder my client at the time had been scared to develop this area, as in fact were most other CPG companies.

Just a few years ago, Amazon was said to be muddying the waters by testing their new Fresh delivery and Go bricks and mortar outlets. Walmart retaliated with a competitive online offer of fast service and free delivery. The battle had begun and today we see nothing more than an acceleration of the trend that started almost a decade ago. At least that’s my opinion; what do you think?


The case for bricks & mortar stores

An excellent article published mid-2017 in Forbes andentitled “Five Signs That Stores (Not E-Commerce) Are The Future Of Retail” concluded that physical stores are more valuable. Of course, that was three years ago, an eternity especially post-covid! However, it does highlight the importance of scenario planning for preparing an organisation for future opportunities and threats. For me, planning for the future is as simple as taking the consumers’ perspective and understanding what they (will) want.

For example, I’m happy to order my usual brands online and have them delivered, especially when they’re cumbersome, like pet food, drinks, tinned and paper products. However, for some items, particularly fresh produce, I like to be able to pick the leanest meat or the freshest fruits and vegetables. And you? Do you have sourcing preferences by category? I bet you do, just like other customers.

We will always need to see and try before we buy in numerous categories. Offering free returns may work for apparel but not for electronics. In several industries, consumers will want to see, compare and appreciate items before they purchase.

Several home improvement brands and stores are already offering apps which allow customers to see their potential purchases in their homes. Or their paint and fabric choices “in situ” but virtually. So are retail outlets really essential for every category?

Make sure the future of retail isn't a Kodak moment
Source: Brian Solis

Brian Solis wrote a great article also in early 2017 on the “11 Trends Shaping The Future Of Retail” based on a presentation he wrote back in 2015! However, despite their age, I feel that they remain as true today as when he wrote it.

He says that retail continues to suffer from what he calls the new “Kodak Moment.” This, he claims, is the moment when executives fail to see how customers and markets are shifting.


The new Kodak Moment is when executives fail to see how customers & markets are shifting #FutureofRetail #shopping #retail Click To Tweet


Here are the trends Brian mentions:

1. New (human) perspective is needed to see the actual future that is playing out.

2. Cater to “Accidental Narcissists” as I call them and compete in the on-demand economy.

3. Compete for customer experience…not CX…there’s a difference and one is customer-centered.

4. Become payments agnostic. Don’t impose false standards to compete against other systems to reduce fees. Be open.

5. Understand social commerce and design targeted initiatives that drive shared experiences, reviews and referrals online.

6. Invest in the trust economy, be transparent, and earn reciprocity through the facilitation of open engagement and commerce.

7. Balance web rooming and showrooming by investing in mutually-beneficial experiences and outcomes on both sides.

8. Explore new technologies to reimagine the in-store/online experience blurring the lines between digital/brick-and-mortar.

9. Study the digital and specifically the mobile customer journey to uncover friction, update ageing touch points and cater to mobile-first and mobile-only customers.

10. Invest in innovation teams or innovation centres to discover new competition and possibilities to test and learn in more rapid prototyping programs (outside of risk-averse culture).

11. Take a fresh look at space and consider it a blank slate. Ask yourself and your team, what if we could build a physical store that brought the digital and real-world together to deliver intuitive and indispensable experiences? That’s what Amazon is doing.

What I love about this list is that in the end it can be summed up very simply. It is essential to both know and understand your customers. And it is fundamental for businesses to treat their customer as they would want to be treated themselves. Isn’t that what business has always been about? And life too, come to think of it! So why should retail by any different?


The future of retail

What is sad, in my opinion, is that the vast majority of retailers – and CPG companies too – have been playing a “wait and see” game. And the pandemic has caught them napping. In so many areas, they thought that adding a few technical gadgets or an app or two would enable them to continue to attract customers. Things have gone far beyond payment options or mere personalisation of the shopping experience these days. Covid has changed what people want and how they want to purchase it.

I, therefore, decided to summarise some of the key changes which I believe have become essential to answer customers needs in this era of reset and reboot:

Convenience: customers have busy lives and prefer less and less to go for the large weekly shop in out-of-town shopping malls and hypermarkets. This is why smaller stores in strategic localities will develop faster in developed markets.

There will also be a clear differentiation by category. The customer will decide on their personal priorities between what they value most between their time, price and convenience. For some products, and not just the more expensive ones, they will make an effort in choosing, for others they will expend very little energy.

This has always been the case and is the reason why some manufacturers strive for 100% distribution. But in the future, distribution should be linked to convenience for the customer, not just mass presence. This is also where customers will weigh the convenience of a visit to a store against the risk of contracting the virus. Shopping times will also change as customers alter their behaviours, whenever possible, to avoid crowds.

Customers will weigh the convenience of a visit to a store against the risk of contracting the virus. Shopping times will also change as customers alter their behaviours, whenever possible, to avoid crowds. #Retail #Convenience #Shopping Click To Tweet

Experience: while some shopping malls are in decline, especially in the US, those that survive will shift the emphasis from purchasing to more varied experiences. By incorporating cinemas, bowling alleys, cafes, restaurants and even medical centres, malls are hoping to attract customers by differentiating themselves and driving more traffic to them. But just how different they can be from each other is becoming relatively limited.

However, the retailers themselves also need to start selling differently. Apple, Nike and a few others have already done this. But most outlets appear to be oblivious to the change in their customers’ desires for experiential connections with brands. As health and safety become top-of-mind for shoppers, they may avoid these in the short-term as they prioritise pre-visit decision-making, enabling quicker in-store visits.

As health and safety become top-of-mind for shoppers, they may avoid experiential brand experiences in the short-term as they prioritise pre-visit decision-making, enabling quicker in-store visits. #shopping #experiential #retail Click To Tweet

Delivery: Whether we buy online or in-store, one thing is clear; we want it NOW! Fast these days is next-day or same-day delivery – if ordered before a certain time. In the very near future, we will want our purchases to be waiting for us when we get home. Already a quarter of shoppers, according to recent L2 research said they would abandon their cart if same-day delivery was unavailable. And with many customers still in lockdown or working from home, the pressure on delivering fast becomes even stronger.

If you think about it, why should shopping be any different from transport today? We no longer stand on street corners in the hope of finding a taxi driving by. The success of Uber and Lyft lies partly in the fact that the customer can call a car and immediately know the waiting time based on a live map of their surroundings. They also know the plate number, driver’s name and what others think about the person. All this delivers trust in the experience, an essential part of going out these days when each excursion carries the additional risk of possible infection.

Another aspect of delivery that is changing is its timing. As Lin Grosman says in her article The Future Of Retail: How We’ll Be Shopping In 10 Years: “Of course, that’s just the beginning.  Two-hour drone delivery is coming in the foreseeable future, and Amazon is already talking about  30-minute drone delivery.” Talk about near-instantaneous gratification!

The other advantage of such methods is the lack of dealing with delivery people and the latent risk of contamination. Now I’m not sure that this is a great direction for humanity. We all know that we value things more if we have had to work or wait for them. Are we moving rapidly to a new type of consumerism where taking people out of the equation whenever possible will become an increasing preference for shoppers?

Are we moving rapidly to a new type of consumerism where taking people out of the equation whenever possible will become an increasing preference for shoppers? #shopper #consumer #value Click To Tweet

Choice: We now all know what is available around the world, thanks to the internet. Our desires are no longer limited by what is available in local stores or even in our own country. We want to have the choices that others have, wherever in the world we may live.

Customers are already ordering online from far and wide; pet care from Australia, fashion from France and technology from China. It is then up to the purchaser to compare not only the prices but delivery costs and timing as well when making their choice.

According to research conducted by Walker, it was forecast that by the year 2020  customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator. Amplexor recently confirmed that this has in fact already happened, at least in B2B. They claim that:

“Customer experience has overtaken price and product as the key brand differentiator for more than 80% of businesses.”

From that perspective, outlets have arguably an easier task to make the shopping experience more enjoyable and memorable. These days it’s certainly more memorable but probably not more enjoyable, which is why online shopping has increased so dramatically. However August saw a slight decline in the growth of online sales in both the US and UK, as people start returning to brick and mortar stores. But it is clear that covid has changed our purchasing behaviours far faster than the previous trend was showing.

Values: Both manufacturers and retailers are being held to higher standards that have far more to do with their values than their products and services. Millennials, in particular, are basing their choice of brands on things such as social responsibility, sustainability, transparency and authenticity.

Corporate reputation is being scrutinised and evaluated at each mention in the press or on social media. Organisations that don’t walk their talk will be rapidly found out and publically discredited. The pandemic has added one further criterion of importance, that of how organisations are treating their employees. Never before have businesses been scrutinised so closely for their behaviours in so many areas!



So what is the future of retail? Physical or virtual? Are we just in a reset or are we facing a reboot of much larger proportions? With some retailers banking on the first and others on the second, it’s going to be an interesting ride. The customer has everything to gain, at least in theory. Bigger choices in products, services and prices, for sure, but perhaps not always better. And safety has now joined trustworthiness, carbon footprints and sustainability of business practices as a way of evaluating companies and their brands.

I believe that this is why organisations are pulling back their finance departments and care centres from India. And why China is in a race to transform itself from the manufacturer of the world to a global innovation hub. Will the alleged source of the pandemic hurt their image? Most certainly, but for how long? Few countries can compete on price, speed and now even quality.

Retail has always been about making sure that “the right product, is in the right place, at the right time, at the right price.” The right place at the right time appears to be gaining ground over the other two. What do you think?

This post has been regularly updated to reflect current sensitivities in the market. The original post appeared on C3Centricity in 2017.

I hope you enjoy reading this blog post.

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