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Shopper Psychology Answers the Biggest Retail Question: Why Do People Buy?

Buying paper towels or dishwasher detergent may not seem aspirational, but according to shopper psychologist Chris Gray, every purchase a shopper makes is about improving her future. “Shopping behavior is always future oriented,” says Chris on Retail Uncharted. “Whether you’re paying a bill, buying diapers, or buying a diamond ring, it is about making a future that is a little bit better.”

Once retailers understand that concept, they can begin to recognize shoppers’ goals when engaging with their brand and deliver more positive shopping experiences. Chris, founder and CEO of The Buycologist, spoke about shopper psychology and the significant benefits it can drive for retailers with Sidear’s Senior Director of Growth Mike Perekupka.

For retailers who aren’t convinced about tapping into the emotional side of shopping, Chris says studies show that emotional messaging is eight times more effective at driving a sale than messaging that is neutral. 

In order to reap those benefits, retailers need to understand what emotions and aspirations shoppers have before, during, and after their shopping experience. Then retailers can align the shopper experience and marketing messages to those aspirations. This is known as shopper journey modeling, and it’s a critical tool for understanding the shopper journey and identifying opportunities for retailers to solve shoppers’ problems and improve their future.

In this podcast, we asked Chris:

  • What is shopper psychology and how can it improve retailers’ bottom lines?
  • What type of emotions are shoppers looking to satisfy when they are shopping?
  • How can retailers tap into those emotions with their marketing messages and drive more sales?
  • How has the pandemic impacted the typical shopper journey? Have shoppers’ emotional needs changed?
  • What does a typical shopper journey model look like?
  • Could you give an example of a model that helped a retailer improve their customer experience?
  • What is the biggest trend you think will impact retail marketing in the near future?

Top Sound Bites

On the benefits of understanding shopper psychology:

Chris: I think what it comes down to is, shoppers now have more choices than ever before. We can literally shop anywhere, anytime, and get just about anything we want with a click of a button. It’s that simple. The question becomes how do shoppers make those choices? And how do we start to inform and influence those choices? Because if you’re a retailer or you’re a brand at retail, there are literally thousands of things vying for your customers’ attention.

By understanding your customer, understanding the way their mind works, the way they approach life, what they think, what they care about, what’s important to them, you then can be relevant. You can find ways to create communications, experiences, products, that are actually relevant to them and mean something to them and have meaning. Then you stand a better chance of attracting attention, engaging them, and motivating them to buy. Deep understanding of your shoppers is going to be a competitive edge for you.

On the difference between shopper motivations and means:

Chris: Motivation is the why. Why does the shopper engage in shopping? Why are they interested in a product? Why do they want the things they want? This gets into things like aspirations and dreams. Shopping behavior is always future oriented, it’s always about making your future better in some way. Whether you’re paying a bill, buying diapers, or buying a diamond ring, it is about a future that is a little bit better. Those motivations are fairly stable over time.

We can go back to the ancient Romans, and ask, “Why did they go shopping?” Similar reasons as today: security for my family, connection with others, identity. Those remain fairly stable. 

What changes is the means–the means that we go about to achieve those motivations. Those change dramatically. And that’s what we see with shopping behavior, going into the store with your paper list, to now being able to have everything delivered, those changes are very rapid.

When retail marketers understand those two things, it gives them some grounding. As behaviors changed so rapidly, it’s helpful to go back and say, “Okay, what is it that our shopper is trying to accomplish?” That doesn’t change really.

On how the pandemic influenced shopping behavior:

Chris: Motivations are slow to change, but I have to put a little asterisk next to that. And that asterisk is big cultural upheavals. Those tend to affect people’s motivations much more quickly than the normal. What we saw with the pandemic was–it seemed almost overnight–what came rushing to the forefront of everyone’s minds was the need for safety and security, above and beyond everything else.

We can go into Psychology 101, and talk about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the very base of that set of needs is safety and security. And when those needs are not being met, or they’re in question, it makes it very difficult for us to focus on any other needs. And so, all kinds of interesting behavior begins to happen when people feel insecure, or unsafe, or fearful. That is why we saw a rush for paper towels or Clorox wipes at the beginning of the pandemic, for example.

On customer journey models and how they can guide retailers’ strategies: 

Chris: A customer journey model is a way for a brand or retailer to track the path that their customers take as they move towards making a purchase. These models look at the different decisions, behaviors, touchpoints, and opportunities to engage shoppers. At each point in the journey, the model asks, “How can we best communicate, engage with customers, provide for their needs, and reduce frustration?” The goal is to ensure customers are having a positive experience, and they see our brand as the fastest route to achieve their aspirations.

What I think makes customer journey models so important is that rigor and questioning at each point along the journey. These models take a very hard look at how you’re engaging shoppers and how you could be doing better.