The science of shopping

The internet has created a new breed of empowered and informed shoppers who know what they want and won’t settle for less. ShopScience’s Principal Consultant, Mark Fletcher, shares his insights on how they think, and how to make the most of their changing expectations.

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In recent years the balance of power has shifted from seller to buyer. “For decades after the Second World War, the average person was a passive responder to advertising and marketing,” says Mark Fletcher, Principal Consultant at Shop Science, an organisation that helps brands and retailers to build business by leveraging shopper insights. “Now, with online forums it’s easy to get advice. Smartphones let us check competitor prices when we’re in a store, e-commerce lets us shop internationally and social media makes it easy to punish poor service. This combination of societal and technological change has propelled a switch from passive customers to active purchasers.”

Fletcher uses four ‘e’s’ to describe today’s customers – empowered, expectant, engaged and evaluative.

“They’re ‘empowered’ because they know they can get what they want,” he explains. “’Expectant’ means they won’t settle for less. They’re ‘engaged’ by being involved in the purchasing process and they’ll ‘evaluate’ what they receive then tell others what they think. If your offer doesn’t meet their requirements they’ll simply look elsewhere.”

Making the change

Some brands and retailers have embraced the changes – but many have not. “Even worse, some think that all you need to do is bolt a website onto your service or store when you really need to be changing your attitudes and your approach to your customers,” Fletcher continues. “This can drive fundamental changes in the way you do business and even the types of goods and services you offer. Unfortunately, many organisations resist change at this level because they find it too challenging.”

Today, every business must work on the assumption that customers will compare prices and go elsewhere if they seem unreasonably high.

There’s also been a move from selling to customers to helping them to buy. “The first may involve an element of deception,” says Fletcher. “The second is built completely on trust.” He gives the example of a corner milk bar losing custom to a local supermarket. “If the owners respond by putting up the price of milk, they’re likely to drive even more customers away. On the other hand, they might be able to offer something that a supermarket can’t. I recently visited a milk bar which stocks a range of condiments, sauces and other items from the Middle East, where the owner was born. He chatted to me about how to pronounce their names and when to use them, creating the kind of positive experience that gives customers a good reason to keep going back.”

These days, people in need of services from accountancy to lawn mowing often start with online research. “They want to feel confident that providers know what they’re doing – that they’re up with the latest trends and can give good advice,” says Fletcher. “If you provide a service, your website should allow you to post new material easily and provide links to other relevant sites. You can also show your Twitter output automatically as a news feed so you can simply look out for relevant articles and then tweet them. That way, when people visit your website, they’ll see current information on topics that are of interest to them. They’ll gain the impression that you’re well informed and an expert in your field. And, once you’re set up, it costs you nothing.”

Mark Fletcher discusses in more detail how the steps a customer takes before deciding to make a purchase can help shape a successful business strategy.