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The Science of Shopper Psychology

Leading brands and retailers have been incorporating shopper psychology for a competitive advantage and insight into the shopping process.

Shopping has long been the subject of intense research with consumer behaviour reports highlighting purchasing tendencies and decision-making factors.

The Origin of Shopper Psychology

The study of consumer and shopper psychology is centered around determining what people want to buy and why they want to buy it, ultimately allowing the discovery of how to incentivise the customer journey to increase sales.

The core principle of shopper psychology has its roots in the study of behavioural science and the ways in which external factors can influence an individual’s purchasing decisions.

Today, our growing knowledge of how the human mind works, coupled with shopper psychology and behavioural science, has led well-known brands such as Kleenex and Marie Curie to employ psychological strategies in their branding and marketing efforts. 

The Value of Shopper Psychology

From brand placement to display design, everything in a supermarket is done for a reason. Staple items (like bread and milk) are located towards the back of the supermarket to create additional sales opportunities as you walk through the desirables to reach the essentials. Impulse-purchase items are placed by the checkouts to encourage rapid and emotion-led add-ons. It’s all part of a plan!

The key is getting someone to commit to that first purchase - everything after that point becomes progressively easier as they are already invested. But convincing a shopper to make that first purchase is the hardest part. Shopper psychology is influenced by over 1,500 cognitive biases. Not to mention, the senses. A multi-sensory experience dramatically increases purchase behaviour:

Image credit: Digital Agency Network
Image credit: Digital Agency Network

In one study, altering the music played in a well-known department store increased sales dramatically. This particular store had previously opted for trendy chart music, but given that the majority of shoppers were over the age of 65, this didn’t create a suitable multi-sensory environment. A simple change brought drastic improvements. 


Shopper Psychology - the Hidden Gem

It seems that supermarkets, retailers and brands may be (finally) starting to twig onto the idea of emotion-led, multi-sensory supermarket experiences, which means that many brands and supermarket trips are becoming one and the same. But there is still a gap in the market. There are still aspects of shopper psychology that have not yet been tapped into, and it is the brands who tap into this who will soar... 

Becoming more sustainable means your store, brand or product gives shoppers and consumers an alternative, non-price-related purchase motivation.

Shopper Psychology Towards Sustainability

Sustainability. The hidden gem. 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. Now, more than ever before, there is an emphasis on global environmental change. Younger generations, in particular, are more aware than ever of the detrimental effect humans have on the environment.  

Leading brands and retailers have figured out that focusing on environmental and social factors is a necessity in today’s marketplace. And combining this with shopper psychology is a true competitive advantage. But what does sustainability really mean to shoppers?

Ethical Shopping

Shoppers are making a more conscious effort to avoid waste, meaning we are seeing a rise in ethical shopping behaviour, such as:

  • Purchasing eco-conscious brands
  • Opting for vegan/vegetarian alternatives
  • Buying second-hand clothes (they’re vintage...)
  • Buying less (therefore wasting less) but more frequently - minus during the height of the pandemic when everyone made fortnightly shopping trips rather than daily!
  • Supplying reusable bags
Sustainable shoppers with reusable bags

Shopper Psychology is Governed by System 1

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 appeals to our System 1 - our cognitive decision-making process that makes fast judgements based on subtle sensory cues, emotional reactions and mental images.

With this in mind, brands and retailers need to consider how to appeal to shopper psychology through irrational prompts in order to make sustainable purchases. They need to think about how to target the emotions and senses of their shoppers in order to influence a sustainable purchase. For example, provide statistics or images of resource consumption savings that selecting your brand delivers.

One of the most important observations from research around shopper psychology is that many purchasing decisions are made by this automatic, subconscious System 1 - this often completely takes over purchasing decisions.


Manipulating Shopper Psychology

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’. 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 will result in significant changes in shopper decision making.

This is becoming more and more evident in the vegetarian and vegan industries - just 5 years ago, finding suitable products in mainstream supermarkets was difficult and the practice of vegetarianism and veganism were perhaps somewhat viewed as unusual. Now, largely due to social media and influencers, these sustainable dietary options have stormed the market. Shopper psychology has been altered and we are seeing more and more consumers now considering their impact on animal welfare and the environment before making purchase decisions.

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.

Shopper psychology towards sustainability statistics
Shopper psychology towards sustainability statistics

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.

Spreading Sustainable Shopper Psychology

Word of mouth is a powerful influence!

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 easy to explain why your brand is sustainable?

Remember one of the golden rules of shopping: if shoppers don’t understand it, they hardly ever buy it.

Making 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 refillable bottles in Asda to Cans of Carlsberg Export ‘glued’ together.

Shopper psychology to Carlsberg Export sustainable packaging
Shopper psychology to Carlsberg Export sustainable packaging

Shopper Psychology in Baby Steps

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 www.adcocksolutions.com, 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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