They call it ‘consumer behaviour’ at business schools, but we call it shopping.  Should we have Professors of Shopping to help us understand the psychological processes involved in this common (almost daily) activity?  Could there be a science of shopping to help shops maximise their profit.

Certainly many myths surround the topic.  Take the top three conspiracy theories for supermarket layout.  First, the two staples bread and milk, are furthest apart to keep you walking the aisles and then en route inevitably impulse buying.  No, they are in different places mainly for temperature reasons.  Second, super-marketers deliberately try to disorientate you by moving the stuff around.  No they don’t, because relocating goods really annoys punters and sales drop if they do this regularly.  Sure, changes are made but the aim is to accommodate new stock or eliminate poorly selling ranges.  Third, they pile up big fruit and veg at the front of the shop to encourage you to take a trolley which you feel compelled to fill.  No, shopping trolley decisions are made before you enter the store.

But there are people watching and measuring behaviour in all stores to try to understand consumer behaviour.  There are three methods of collecting shopping science data:

First, a careful examination of stock, cash, and sales.  That’s quite simple and reliable.  Loyalty cards make it easier.  These can provide good data on consistency of time and exact details of your purchases.  It can also examine associations, i.e. those who buy pesto are more likely to buy balsamic vinegar.  Those who buy own-brand also buy Bogoffs (Buy-one-get-one-free)

This data tells us about behaviour but it can’t inform us about motives, which we have to infer.  Or, if we believe people both will (and can) tell us about their real (conscious and unconscious) motives we could interview them.   Or they can be stopped before they enter and after they leave shops (noting differences between shopping intentions and actual purchases) or in ubiquitous focus groups or even on the phone. So second we can interview shoppers, but there are problems: Are those who agree to be interviewed representative of shoppers; how much impression management goes on; can they really tell what you need to know?

Third, we can watch people shop.  Through security cameras or using anthropologically trained observers, you can describe how people move through stores: what seems to slow them down or attract them to particular areas while shunning others and why they appear to inspect physically some produce and not others.

Retailers are interested in particular questions: the conversion rate (the number of people entering stores who actually purchase anything); the interception rate (the number of customers who interact with staff members); how long people actually spend in a store and how long they have to wait for service, especially paying.

Time spent in a store is the single best predictor of how much is spent, so slowing people down is a good thing.  But it is not a good idea to slow them down with poor signage and blocked aisles.  Mirrors slow people down, intriguing displays do likewise.  Equally having the wait is the single best predictor of dissatisfaction, so it pays to ensure waiting is at a minimum.

Studies show many pretty obvious things.  Signage is very important; people like to sit down in shops; music and smells can affect moods and thence purchases.  People need ways of easily carrying things and they tend to have habitual ways of moving around the store.

But what about individual differences?  Yes, there are, of course, shopper types: experiential and adventure shoppers; shopaholics and shopaphobics; economic shoppers and  price-insensitive people; bargain hunters and sociable shoppers.

And are there demographic differences?  Naturally shoppers have been classified by age, sex and class.  And this is where the fanciful speculation starts.  Observers notice, people self-report and loyalty card information  indicate sex-differences.

Females spend more time shopping than men.  They seem to be more aware, inquisitive and patient in shops.  Men, it seems, move faster, look less and are less inclined to ask questions.  Men seem to worry less about the price and seem more anxious to get out of the store.

Men inhibit women shoppers.  Women accompanied by men spend half the time than if accompanied by other women.  Women advise, consult, talk, suggest to each other….men get on with it.

Women, some socio-biologically inclined researchers note, find shopping relaxing and rejuvenating.  But men are hunter-gatherers.  They need a clear objective (i.e. a list) and to know precisely what brand, colour, size and style.  Where to go, how long to stay, etc.  Men go for a quick kill.

And then there are the pathologies associated with shopping addictions and compulsions, including shoplifting.  There seem to be a disproportionate number of women suffering from these.  People shop to confirm their identity (you are what you wear); to find external symbols of missing internal needs; to restore a feeling of group belonging.  Addictive shoppers are like anorexics – they feel empty inside, they need control and to feel admired.

The thesis is developed further with the concept of retail therapy.  The shopper really is a profoundly unhappy person trying to ‘buy relief’ in big stores.

There are probably more shoppophiles than shoppo-phobes.  And there does appear to be a sex difference in shopping preferences and predilections.   Males, whose need  is to make a quick kill and take it home, need a target and a timetable.  They believe men can be motivated to shop only if given clear criteria for the purchase (brand, style, colour, size); a map or directions of where to shop, even criteria for how long they should be at it!

People do spend a lot of time in malls and shopping centres.  Now they spend hours surfing the web shopaholically.  But what are their motives?  Are there clearly different types based on different reasons for shopping?

Over 30 years ago the marketing experts tried to offer a list of motives.  One researcher had a typology of 16 fundamental human motivations, suggesting that shopping behaviour arises for three fundamental reasons:  to acquire a product, to acquire both a desired product and provide satisfaction with non-product-related needs, or primarily to attain goals not related to product acquisition.  These fundamental shopping motives were captured in seven dimensions of shopping motivation labelled: “anticipated utility,” “role enactment,” “negotiation,” “choice optimisation,” “affiliation,” “power/authority” and “stimulation.”

But more recently the retailing analysts have identified six clear different “hedonic shopping motives”.

Adventure Shopping:  Shopping is seen as an exciting adventure.  Shopping offers a sensory world of new sights, sounds and smells.  Shops are like adventure playgrounds.  They provide a marvellous source of stimulation.

Social Shopping:  This is the bonding shopping experience.  It is a way to spend time with friends and family. Perhaps that is why there are so many places to eat and drink in shops these days.  Shopping can help people express their altruistic, cohesive and acceptance needs.  Shopping with others can be just like any other social activity:  some go once a week to the WI, others to badminton and some go shopping together.

Gratification Shopping:  This is more akin to retail therapy.  This is shopping for stress relief; shopping to indulge; shopping to pick oneself up.  For some it’s winding down while for others it is a distraction.  Quite clearly it is all about escapism, neo-therapeutic self-gratification.  Some now call it an emotion-focused coping strategy.

Idea Shopping:  the fashion conscious and presumably fashion victims in particular have to find a way to keeping up with what is new.  They need to know what is in and what is not.  There are trends in everything from boys’ toys to girls’ fashions.  Shops are a laboratory, a catalogue, a library and an exhibition all rolled into one.  The shopper is essentially a researcher.

Role Shopping:  Shopping for others can be, for some, deeply satisfying and gratifying.  People feel good about gift shopping.  It allows them to act out their role of parent, friend, admirer, lover and the like.  It has become a way to enact out and fulfil culturally prescribed roles in our society.

Value Shopping:  this is the discount-seeking, bargain hunter who sees the whole shopping experience as a challenge and a game to be won.  These shoppers are competitive achiever out to seek increased self-esteem and admiration of their peers.

So shopping is a thrill-seeking adventure; a major social occasion; a mood enhancer; a trend-setting research expedition; a relationship builder;  a bargain hunt.  Shopping can provide ‘flow’ that optimal experience of being totally engrossed.  It can distort time and hours can pass without notice.  The sheer aesthetic beauty of the stores can make shopping uplifting.

Of course the trouble with all typologies or even dimensions is that they offer an irresistible temptation to the obsessional to split one category, add another or combine two or more.  Few people fit neatly into each box.  But it is a start.

The question of course is what are the implications for the retailers?  Advertising can be targeted at the different shopping types.  Some are attracted by price, others by novelty and others still by variety.  Stores can and have introduced certain features because they recognise their various predominant market types.  So we have the bookstore–café concept; the discovery-science store; the privilege card after hours evening.

Stores might like to investigate the motives of their repeat customers.  These motives may be linked to gender, age, social class and ethnicity.  It may help to understand the current group as well as attract new hedonic types.

And if  retailers understand their clients they should see an increase in such desirable things as satisfaction, loyalty and profit

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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