The Why Behind the Buy

Understanding consumerism and why we buy

The New Shopper Brain Decoded

Three sociocultural shifts have changed the psychology of shoppers.

When Julie left her once favorite clothing store empty-handed she said she felt agitated but didn’t know why. “I don’t know, nothing hit me. Maybe I’ve outgrown that store.” Julie is one of more than 100 consumers that I interviewed for my new book, Decoding the New Consumer Mind. I tagged along with her on a shopping trip, chatted with her about her life and interviewed her about how, when and why she shops and buys. What Julie doesn’t know (at least consciously) is that three things happened when she was shopping that contributed to her agitation. She accidentally wandered into the petite section of the store and it took a minute for her to reorient herself, she found a tee-shirt she liked but couldn’t find her size, and she received a call from her daughter that distracted her long after the conversation ended.

Tiny impediments to purchase, like those that Julie experienced, were relatively insignificant a few years ago. Not so today. And that’s one of the many ways that consumers have changed in the past decade. Three giant sociocultural shifts have altered our psychology and by extension how and why we shop and buy. One of those shifts is greater emotionality - particularly anxiety, anger and emptiness.

Julie told me that “it’s been a tough year” and that she’s been stressed out lately. She’s not alone. According to a new study by JWT, three times more Americans report feeling anxious than those that don’t. Around the world, anxiety is on the rise. Stress, anxiety’s little cousin, is such a common part of our lives it’s nearly taken for granted. And diagnosed anxiety disorders are at record levels.

Anxiety—big or small—influences our interests, stamina, how we process information and how we make decisions—all things that are key components of shopping. Here are three examples of how anxiety is impacting retail:

Sensory Shopping

Anxiety’s original purpose was to give us a physical boost to combat things things like wild animals. Even though today’s threats are more likely to be things like deadlines or money concerns, our bodies still get the juice—at the expense of our rational minds. Which is why the sensory components of shopping are more influential than ever. Today’s shopper sees, hears and smells with greater acuity. They form opinions through visual and symbolic information such as colors, assortments and organization much more readily than through words.

Crowd Cred

One of the factors contributing to elevated levels of anxiety is a diminished trust in social establishments. Edelman’s 2014 Trust Barometer shows abysmal levels of trust in business, media, schools and especially government. Who do we trust? People like us. Which is why “crowd cred" is more important than ever. Retailers that showcase the opinions of other shoppers—through things like “most pinned” tags in stores or product ratings online—simply look more trustworthy and that takes away a barrier to purchase.

 Easy Beats Cheap

When Julie’s daughter called (shoppers get to take work and family stressors everywhere now) the final “straw” of stress was added to the two very minor shopping bumps she encountered moments earlier. Together they were enough to exhaust her interest in the retailer. Hassles seem more profound when when our mental resources are diminished by anxiety and stress. Which is why shoppers increasingly tell me about smooth transactions, easy shopping and insightfully designed websites or stores when I ask them about their favorite retail experiences. This is a major difference from the interviews I conducted a decade ago when shoppers talked about products or prices more than the shopping experience. After years of discount fever, consumers have come to expect great products and bargains when they’re shopping - which means they’re rarely surprised or delighted when they find them, more likely they’re disappointed when they don’t. Add to this the effects of anxiety, and fewer sticks stand out more than more carrots.

Sensory excellence, trustworthiness and hassle reduction are increasingly significant because they’re unique in todays retail landscape and most importantly, because they tap into the new psychology of today’s shoppers.

Kit Yarrow is a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

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