Shops are for more than spending

by Lexie Taylor | Growth Marketing Manager

Jul 14, 2021

The world of retail has changed drastically over recent years. While some traditional retailers have struggled to meet rising customer expectations and digital demands, many trailblazing web-based retailers have gone from strength to strength.

But what does that mean for the high street? I speak to Dr Cathrine Jansson-Boyd, Reader in Consumer Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, to hear her views on what shoppers are really looking for from retail.

What shoppers really want

“Well shopping habits have clearly changed. A lot.” Cathrine begins. “To start with, those people who thought they would never buy anything online have had to so due to the pandemic. It has also bought home to a lot of people that they don’t actually like shopping online. It is often a lot more hassle than people realised to send something back or to get it exchanged”.

Of course, during lockdown people had little choice but to shop online, but what about now most shops have reopened? “There are still some insecurities around what people can touch in stores, which may make them feel uncomfortable. But surveys show that overwhelmingly people do want to return to physical retail. Even those who have embraced online shopping.”

“While people love online shopping, as they can source anything from anywhere in the world, people also value being able to touch products and see them close up.”

She continues to say that while online shopping may have ramped up during lockdown, that “there will be a new-found appreciation for physical retail.”

Retailers need to do more

The conversation moves to the changing British high street, with Gap becoming the latest in a string of retail chain closures to hit the news. Cathrine says that she doubts this shift to online will serve well as a long-term strategy. “Yes, consumers are currently shopping online, but there is a time limit to this. This will last until people feel truly comfortable returning to shops.”

She says this is particularly true for clothing brands, which shoppers want to touch and try on. “Buying clothes online only works when a consumer is used to a particular brand. It means if you want to shop somewhere new, you have to order multiple sizes.”

The impact of the pandemic on retail was seismic, but in many cases, it accelerated the inevitable. “I think it’s an indication that we want more from retail. We are fed up with the same stuff on every single high street. The pandemic accelerated this desire for different, individualised experiences.”

Shops are for more than spending

So, what do shoppers really want from the high street?

“They want something very experiential. Even before the pandemic we saw that consumers were responding very well to experiences. If a retailer offers an alternative, fun experience, shoppers are more likely to come back.”

Cathrine also believes that today’s consumer has higher expectations, which is partially down to FOMO from our online lifestyles. “We see others having fun, and we want the same for us. We don’t want our lives to be boring, normal and average, we have a lot of expectations as humans and of course retail fits into these. The stores that are doing really well are those that have been creative.”

One store she highlights here is Apple, “they realised that people prefer shops where they can touch things. And it seems so simplistic now, but it’s kind of genius. It allows people to play with every product regardless of the price. They get a trial run, and even if they can’t afford to buy it, they are connected on a psychological level. They may then even try and save up for it.”

High sensory shopping

The power of people in retail is a reoccurring theme in our discussion. She believes that people are fed up with being in front of a screen, and this need for human connection is what is driving people to go back out shopping. “These interactions are so important for our mental health. Shopping is a social activity, we often go with friends, and if not, we’ll talk to store staff.”

These real-life connections also improve consumer confidence. As Cathrine explains that when people buy something in person, they’re much less likely to return it compared to purchasing online.

“You are more considerate in your choices as you have more information and context when making your decision. You have access to sensory information, you can see the size, you can touch, you can smell it – and all those things come into play.”

She tells me shoppers engaged through all five senses in the store are more likely to make purchases and to have a lasting impression of the store. “Done well, a congruent sensory experience can be phenomenal”, but she adds, “it needs to have a clear directive message and be aligned with the brand.”

So, where next?

Cathrine acknowledges that online shopping is here to stay, but physical retail still presents an unrivalled sensory experience. Above all else, delivering an authentic consumer experience is essential. Fleeting gimmicks won’t cut it. “Stores need to be facilitating an emotional connection that is longer lasting. And so much of this is down to the people they employ.”

She finishes, “I believe the future of physical retail is experiential, but only if it is done properly. If we continue with the same old, same old, then it will die quickly. But if people start shaking it up and getting creative and innovative, then there is longevity.”

If you're interested in learning more about consumer behaviour, you can read Consumer Psychology by Dr Cathrine Jansson-Boyd.