Michigan State University Professor of Retailing Patricia Huddleston Weighs In On How Consumer Behavior Is Changing
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Michigan State University Professor of Retailing Patricia Huddleston Weighs In On How Consumer Behavior Is Changing

May 30, 2020

This article is part of Raydiant’s Consumer Behavior series which interviews top industry experts to better understand the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on consumers, how businesses can adapt to these changes and how it will shape shopping experiences in the future.

The following is an interview we had with Patricia Huddleston, Professor of Retailing, Department of Advertising and Public Relations, Michigan State University.

How has consumer behavior evolved over the past 5 years?

PH: For discretionary products, such as apparel, when shopping in stores consumers look for experiences rather than transactions. Stores that provide a value-added shopping experience (Sephora, Lululemon, TJ Maxx) continue to attract consumers. On the other hand, for utilitarian purchases, consumers seek convenience such as buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS), easy to shop store layouts.

Consumers are increasingly comfortable with cross channel shopping, for example, buying via smartphone to pick up items at the store.

What are the biggest consumer behavioral changes you’re seeing due to COVID-19?

PH: Without a doubt, the huge increase in online shopping dominates the changes we’re seeing during COVID-19. What’s interesting are the product categories that have enjoyed huge increases. According to CCinsight.org, some home appliances, health and fitness equipment, and leisurewear have enjoyed huge sales increases in the past 8 weeks. Other changes we have seen in consumer purchase behavior is stockpiling of many staple goods (e.g. yeast, flour, pasta, toilet paper). This behavior has led to widespread, temporary shortages in these products.

Anecdotally, some consumers view shopping trips during the shelter in place mandates as welcome get-aways from home confinements and as an opportunity to connect (but in a distant way) with others.

How can brick and mortar retailers adapt to these changes?

PH: Retailers should provide a seamless online shopping experience (e.g. easy to search website, fast checkout) and fast delivery. Keeping the consumer informed at each step of the delivery process is a way to build a relationship with the customer. For first time shoppers to a retailer’s website, retailers should engage those customers by opt-in email or text messages which inform customers of price promotions or other events of interest. Brick and mortar retailers should also keep customers informed about changes in store hours, for stores that have been closed, reopening plans. Many customers appreciate being informed about in-store precautions taken to protect customers (and store employees) from the COVID-19.

What behavior trends should retailers be focused on?

PH: Understand what drives online vs. in-store shopping behavior and what represents convenience and value to customers. Value does not always mean low price, it might mean a fast, contact-free purchase process. Smart brick and mortar retailers will also have insight into what causes customers to be fearful about returning to stores and do everything in their power to alleviate those fears, for example, cleaning and sanitizing procedures. At the other end of the spectrum, for those customers who are less fearful, provide reasons to visit the store (events, new merchandise).

What will the consumer shopper of the future look like? 

PH: We have seen in the past eight weeks how quickly and dramatically consumer shopping behavior can change. The customer of the future will continue to shop across channels, using a variety of means to do so (mobile apps, websites, store visits). For the foreseeable future, customers will care about retailers putting the customer first, being in-stock on products that they need, and providing a safe shopping experience. Once the COVID-19 pandemic is resolved, I believe that there will be a pent up demand for fun, engaging, and unique experiences, albeit set up in such a way to facilitate social distancing.

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