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    March 13, 2023

    Anne Stephenson of Explorer Research: What Shopper Research Tells Us About Consumers’ Desired Retail Experiences

    Written by: Satta Sarmah Hightower
    “A mindset shift needs to desperately happen in terms of looking at the buyer journey as one journey.”— Anne Stephenson, Partner, Explorer Research

    In the last few years, consumers have kept brands on their toes. Their behavior is constantly changing, and the shopper journey is now characterized by continuous zigging and zagging rather than linear movement.

    In this environment, shopper research is pivotal to understanding how to create engaging and personalized retail experiences that convert consumers into loyal shoppers. Over her 30-year career, Anne Stephenson has become adept at understanding what makes consumers tick. Stephenson, a partner at the firm Explorer Research, and her team continually uncover insights that help brands optimize the customer journey across the digital and physical shelves.

    Stephenson joined a recent episode of the “Unpacking the Digital Shelf” podcast, “The Squiggly Consumer Journey: The Latest Intel in Shopper Research,” to share her perspective about the top trends reshaping the customer journey and how brands can stay one step ahead of them to meet consumers’ ever-changing expectations.

    A Multi-Faceted Approach to Shopper Research

    To say Stephenson’s team’s approach to shopper marketing research is thorough would be an understatement.  

    “One of the lenses that we really like to bring to anything we do with shoppers is to really understand that real behavior,” she says. “A lot of that you can only get through testing and context, whether that's in a brick-and-mortar environment or online.”

    Explorer Research employs a multifaceted approach to shopper research, using tools such as eye tracking and more passive methods such as analyzing consumers’ search behavior. Stephenson says that together these methods allow her team to drill down and truly understand consumers’ actual behavior — rather than hypothesize about it.

    “If you’re just looking at clicks, you’re missing the why,” she says.  

    Understanding the ‘Why’ Behind Consumer Behavior 

    Understanding why shoppers do what they do is the Holy Grail for most marketers but it’s so difficult for them to assess because external factors constantly shift consumer behavior, whether it’s a global pandemic or inflation.

    “We've never seen such seismic change in terms of shifts in shopper behavior, and a lot of that was fueled by the pandemic,” Stephenson says. “But the fun continues in terms of a shifting and changing world with inflation, so it's extremely dynamic.”

    Stephenson says this is why the precise tools her firm uses are so critical. For example, with eye tracking, a brand can learn that a consumer never considered a particular item because they never saw it. To solve this problem, the brand may focus on getting priority shelving with a particular retailer or changing how its product is presented online. 

    When consumers decide to abandon their online shopping carts or not place a product in their physical shopping cart, there is a range of reasons why. Brands can leverage shopper research to pinpoint exactly what led them to each decision.  

    The Digital Shelf vs. Physical Shelf: How Shoppers Interact Across Channels

    Delivering engaging retail experiences is difficult for brands because there are so many channels and platforms. This fragmentation leads to markedly different shopper behavior across the digital and physical shelves, Stephenson says.

    Her team recently conducted research in the pet category and found that time to shop was 80% higher in brick and mortar than online. Stephenson suggests this may be because discoverability is more straightforward online, with specific items bookmarked, added to favorites, and expansive search filters that allow consumers to get down to a very narrow assortment. 

    Within the pet category, Stephenson’s team also discovered product packaging plays a bigger role on the physical shelf than the digital shelf. Fixations — or where consumers look — are one area where there’s a noticeable difference. 

    “Ninety-seven percent of them [fixations] were on the packages in a physical store. But within an online store only around 55% of fixations were actually looking at a pack because there was so much more to look at in terms of that primary search,” she says. “Once you got down to the brand or the category products you were looking at, shoppers would look at titles. They'd look at reviews and all kinds of different information.”

    What this means for brands is simple.

     “How you communicate online has to be different and you really have to understand what's the most salient thing that's going to drive your purchase.”— Anne Stephenson, Partner, Explorer Research

    Stephenson: ‘Substitution Is a New Shopper Power’

    Another trend brands need to be aware of is consumer disloyalty.

    This trend varies by age. Stephenson’s team found generational shifts in brand loyalty: Younger shoppers tend to be less loyal than older ones. Brands that offer easily substituted products are particularly susceptible to waning consumer loyalty during periods of high inflation.

    “What it means in terms of today's environment is, with inflation, the pressures are very real to maximize your spending power,” Stephenson says. “If your brand has high substitution, the shopper can now do that. We love to say that ‘substitution is a new shopper power.’”

    Brands that want to retain customers (or even attract new value-minded consumers) should understand the price points at which their customers will make a trade-off based on more competitive pricing in the marketplace.

    Stephenson also says in times of disruption, it isn't always beneficial for brands to look at historical data to gauge how consumers will react. Instead, they should examine current or real-time data to respond in a more agile way to changing consumer behavior and to precisely target and retain their most loyal customers.

    2023 Retail Predictions — And What They Mean for Brands and Consumers

    2023 will be all about bridging the gap between online and offline for teams to develop a holistic understanding of their customers.

    This isn’t much different from prior years, except that brands and retailers will continue to operate in an environment where stubborn inflation will affect consumer behavior and supply chain disruptions will persist. To deliver the best retail experiences, Stephenson says it’s now more important than ever for brands to break down operational and data silos.

    “When we get too siloed, that's where we start getting into not looking at that shopper as a person and not really understanding this fluid nature between different channels,” she says. “A mindset shift needs to desperately happen in terms of looking at the buyer journey as one journey.”

    Stephenson says brands can remain nimble in 2023 and beyond by more carefully curating and editing their assortment across brick-and mortar-and online. 

    Technology-driven automation also will play a pivotal role in how brands manage their operations, especially as more companies tighten their belts, potentially reduce the size of their teams, and try to do more with less.

    Stick to the Fundamentals

    In times of disruption, sticking to the fundamentals is what’s most important, Stephenson adds.

    “It's just getting back to a lot of the basics in terms of understanding who your consumer and your shopper is, understanding their behaviors, and understanding — especially as we're looking at inflation — what are those drivers of value?” she says. “It's a lot of the basic stuff. 

    “How do you really answer their needs? What's really pressing for them? How can you help them through this time of inflation?” she asks. “How can you provide the appropriate assortment to them in terms of what's really relevant? A lot of it is just stepping back and listening and then really answering that for your customers and for your shoppers.”

    To hear more of Stephenson’s insights on shifting consumer behavior, listen to the full episode.