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Shopper Psychology Towards Sustainability

Building a sustainable business is a business imperative. Leading brands & retailers have been incorporating shopper psychology for a competitive advantage.

If building a sustainable business was a fashionable trend five years ago, today it is a business imperative. Leading brands & retailers have figured out that focusing on environmental & social factors is a necessity in today’s marketplace. And if done well, by incorporating shopper psychology, it is a true competitive advantage. But what does sustainability really mean to shoppers, in-store, or online at the moment they make their purchasing decisions?

Becoming more sustainable means your store, brand or product gives shoppers and consumers an alternative, non-price related purchase motivation. And in the current climate of choice overload and the retail trade's apparent addiction to promotions and special offers, using shopper psychology to provide shoppers with a more ethical choice is a real opportunity.

Human behaviour underlies almost all environmental problems, such as air and water pollution, climate change, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity.

Most consumers want to live in a way that treats the planet we depend on with care and respect, and people express increasing worry about the state of our natural environment. Yet at the same time, as shoppers, many of us find ourselves engaging in unsustainable shopping activity.

One of the most important observations from psychological research is that many purchasing decisions are made by automatic, unconscious processes on the basis of information that our conscious, rational brains are hardly aware of (System 1, System 2). Unfortunately, sustainable behaviours have little appeal to System 1: Our mental decision making process that makes decisions much more quickly, based on subtle sensory cues, emotional reactions and mental images.

Importantly, System 1 is outside our conscious control and when it comes to shopping, often completely takes over purchasing decisions, for example when we are doing the regular big shop or succumbing to that sweet treat to go with our food to go purchase.

In summary, from a shopper psychology perspective, offering shoppers and consumers rational prompts to make sustainable purchases is going to be much less effective than communicating sustainability in ways that appeal to System 1.

5 ways to incorporate shopper psychology into your sustainability

1, Become the social default

As a species, we are biologically programmed to care a great deal about what other people think of us. As a result, we implicitly do all we can just to ‘fit in’. This trait is a direct result of evolution. Early humans who lived alone as opposed to existing in groups faced almost certain death.

Because of this hard-wiring, shoppers act on messages that come from other people (Social media for example). At the same time, they significantly underestimate the extent to which these social messages influence them.  

Whether you are a sustainable store, brand or product, positioning yourself as the social default, and communicating to System 1, will result in significant changes in shopper decision making. I can help you communicate with System 1, more effectively.

2, Let shoppers exhibit their sustainability preferences

Shoppers are attuned to more than just social signals; they also notice the actions of people around them. The more often we see a particular behaviour, the more it becomes normal and we internalise it as a norm. For example, the first time we see a shopper bring their own reusable container to the supermarket we find it odd, but after we’ve seen it a few times, and we’re in Asda, we find ourselves more open to the idea of doing the same.

Take your sustainable store, brand or product and make it a badge of honour. Make shoppers want to exhibit to other shoppers their preference for you. Did you know that there are shoppers who load their Aldi groceries into a Waitrose carrier bag or decant their McDonald's coffee into a Starbucks cup? Why? Because of their perception of the importance of what others may think about them.

Want to know how to make an effective psychological badge of honour? Drop me a line.

3, Make it easy to spread sustainable

A personal request from a friend or a family member, or in many cases even a stranger, is a very strong motivator. This is because of the implicit rules of social interaction that make it awkward for us to give a flat-out refusal to a personal request.

Networks of people working together to become more sustainable promotes an environmental social identity. And the more people feel a part of a particular group, the more likely they are to adopt the values and behaviours that are associated with that group.

Take your sustainable store, brand or product and evaluate how easy it is for shoppers and consumers to recommend it to others. If you find any friction at all, endeavour to remove it. For example, what is the 140 character reason why your brand is the sustainable choice? Is it as easy as it could be to explain why your brand is sustainable?

Remember one of the golden rules of shopping: If shoppers don’t implicitly understand it, they hardly ever buy it. Ask me about processing fluency and how it can revolutionise the effectiveness of your communications.

4, Make sustainable mainstream

Until recently, environmental consumers have been thought of as mostly white, middle-class 'do gooders' who have the resources to be able to afford the expense of living green.

To make your sustainable store, brand or product really fly, it has to appeal to more than just an environmental elite. Use your communications, displays, online presence and packaging to illustrate how your brand is used in everyday walks of life: From refillables in Asda to Cans of Carlsberg Export ‘glued’ together.

5, Don’t forget System 2

Throughout evolution, our brains have evolved several important time and energy saving processes. Short-cuts we use anytime we rely on a simple cue to guide a decision without a deeper consideration of what the cue really means. For example, imagine a shopper who sees a sticker on a product that says ‘Natural’, the word activates a heuristic or bias that ‘natural is good’. The shopper may not invest any more time or effort to further examine the product. This is still mostly System 1.

But System 2 can help your sustainable store, brand or product too. One way to get shopper’s attention and prompt System 2 processing is to surprise them with a startling or unexpected piece of information. For example, provide statistics or images of resource consumption savings that selecting your brand delivers.

6, Make shoppers feel less bad

People frequently find themselves paralysed by confusion or apathy: They want to do the sustainable 'thing', but can’t be all that bothered or motivated. Instead of being the most sustainable, simply position your store, brand or product as ‘a bit more sustainable’. In other words, encourage shoppers to make a smaller perceived change not a dramatic switch.

The subject of sustainability taps into human evolution and social responsibility. Many retailers and brands still need to answer some important questions; answers that shoppers are often unable to provide verbally.

  • What does sustainability really mean to shoppers, in-store, online at the moment they make their purchasing decisions?
  • How much does sustainability really influence purchasing decisions
  • What are the most and least effective triggers and barriers to purchase?

These days, shoppers and consumers are much more environmentally aware, and they want to know what a company’s sustainability policies are. But they are less aware of how they really react when making purchase decisions. Nevertheless, for shrewd companies, a strategy built around sustainability can be a real critical advantage.

I have conducted shopper research and studied shopper psychology for more than 20 years, specialising in going beyond what shoppers and consumers say and getting to what they really mean. If you’d like to know more about the shopper and shopper psychology and sustainability, please get in touch.

About Phillip Adcock

My name is Phillip Adcock: I have more than 30 years of human behavioural research and analysis, and have developed a unique ability to identify what it is that makes people psychologically and physiologically 'tick'.

Would you like to know more about how shoppers and consumers think? Download my FREE guide now. Alternatively, check out, where there are more FREE downloads available there. Or why not simply email me with what's on your mind?

If you think there is value in this article then please, please share it, thank you.

Phillip Adcock
Psychology & Behaviour
Change Consultant

Are you fascinated by how shoppers think?

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