By: Andrea Geeson

Vox Pops International

As economic figures suggest that consumers are slowing returning to the high street and big flagship stores such as M&S report an increase in sales, is the high street back in business? Andrea Geeson investigates retail behaviour by conducting qualitative video research on the shopping habits of the general public over the last six months.

The world of retail has the customary high and lows of a theme park roller coaster and as one big high street name makes an attempt at a comeback another sinks into despair and is deserted by its previously loyal following. Marks and Spencers seems to have made inroads on its rather disastrous past couple of years but in a high street saturated with stores, consumers are presented with an increasing amount of choice and competition, we wanted to discover how retail behaviour changed in 2005 and the implications and consumer trends for 2006.

Consumers, who are as news aware as marketers, were conscious of the much-reported down turn in consumer spending. News shows and newspapers were not shy in telling us about the slump in high street spending and the drop in profits at major retailers across Britain. And it did not go unnoticed, either through personal experience or the media, that Britain is a nation in a growing amount of debt, factors that have unarguably shaped retail spending in 2005. While the boom might not be back, there is increase in consumer spending this quarter. Why is this and how are consumers behaving in the light of increased technological usage and more sophisticated in store media and trendy environments?

The shift from one designated retail location, to the popularisation of out of town retail centres and the move by supermarkets into non- food markets has significantly altered our ideas of retail experiences. Time poor young professionals and those working traditional working hours are able to purchase many items at the supermarket rather than visiting the high street at weekends. The internet has also led to a collapse in static shopping hours and predictable times for certain sales.

Consumers wants are no longer restricted by opening hours or store location and as such we are becoming much more fussy about where we spend our money, making marketing increasing difficult as consumer spending patterns become more erratic and are less dependent on what's on offer and instead becoming increasingly customer led. The range and number of sales of random products on Ebay is testament to this. So while marketers might seem to know what consumers want, it seems that want we want needs no marketing at all. What consumers want is, in large numbers, items that just aren't available on the high street at bargain prices.

Ebay offers consumers the convenience to browse and compare a large number of products from the comfort of their own homes and the ability to determine or influence the selling price themselves, an experience that they do not have on the high street and one which perhaps explains the popularity of going to markets for the over 50s we interviewed as part of our research. So taking part and feeling like they have some sway in the purchasing process is one of the key elements we picked up on in our study and something that is clearly lacking in the monotonous retail experiences we are now presented with on the high street.

Online shopping of course offers considerable savings, which has played a big part in its success and price deflation and the exponential growth of discount stores are other factors that have shaped retail spending and behaviour in 2005.

Though we may have become wealthier, we have also become more watchful of the purse strings as the ability to shop around for a bargain becomes easier. Price runner and 99p stores offer an avenue for acquiring goods at the best value and brand loyalty has been eroded by the saturation of similar goods for less money. Why pay more indeed. Purchasing an item for considerably less than someone else became a new form of pulling social rank, inverting the traditional 'Keeping up with the Jones' spending agenda Primark is enjoying its heyday, as consumers rush to snap up the latest fashion bargains for next to nothing.

Brands themselves are becoming less important and more diluted by the international competition and the increased volume of competition meaning mediocre brands are finding it increasing difficult to stay afloat. We would rather buy on brand at a cheaper price than a half decent branded version that costs more.

In order to compete with financial savings stores have turned to making their in store environment an superior experience, with interiors that are more exciting and inviting with the increased use of in-store media and technology. Deploying the latest gadgetry has been successful in luring back customers, especially when it echoes internet capabilities. Consumers told us that in store entertainment and machines no only makes a shop seem more trendy, it can make they stay longer too. This is because they can act as a source of distraction for bored boyfriends and partners and also because they allow consumers to view more of the stores products without having to trawl the store. Product finders are popular because they ease the customer experience.

In store media must never impose on store design though and layout is the single biggest determining factor after price for high street store preferences. Consumers want bright open spaces that are easy to navigate and have products that are well-presented, especially older consumers that find over stocked stores particularly annoying. Consumers are prepared to sacrifice space and order, but only for significant reductions and value. Improving in store environment seems essential for continual success and our respondents demand air conditioning, better seating and displays and more access to refreshments, suggesting an attraction towards stores that provide food and drink dispensing.

Staffing is also an area that can make or break consumers' retail experiences. Obtaining the right balance between being overbearing and non-existent staff is difficult but vital to creating a good store image and something that consumers believe is still not being got right. Personal service and not being held in a queue is something that we have gotten used to on the internet. Self-service options, which are becoming standard in many of the major supermarkets, go somewhere towards achieving this.

Further initiatives for improvement suggested by our responses however, hint that more interactive devices would be welcomed, including machines that display information on stock in clothes and electrical shops. These again point towards shopping experience that is almost completely dictated and carried out by the customers themselves, not the staff.

Consumers with increasing amounts of disposable income are the over 50s and tweens and we investigated their spending habits. The over 50s are family orientated and much of their money is spent on family and friends while the tweens spend their money on ensuring and impressing friends. And while the two demographics have very different attitudes towards money, brand awareness and desirability can be tracked in these age groups. We discovered that from the age of eight strong brand associations have been formed that can last into adulthood. Many of the over 50s we interviewed admitted that the brands they still buy today are a hangover from their childhood, the brands they were brought up on. Brands can be trusted friends or representations of emotional stages and family ties.

Top stores for over 50s are Marks & Spencers, John Lewis and Next but catalogue shopping is still a popular option of acquiring goods and as afore mentioned shopping at markets or car boots sales are still a big part of this demographics shopping experience, suggesting that value for money and involvement in the sales process are requirement that are missing from high street shopping.

Our research showed that today's savvy consumers demand increasingly creative and more importantly interactive strategies, to entice them into stores. Discovering what makes consumers tick and buy from certain stores can perhaps be achieved by returning to more traditional retail methods that allow the consumer to participate or interactive with the seller on a more personal level or implement new technology that streamlines the purchasing process as smooth and painless as possible.

About the author:

Andrea Geeson (BA Hons) is Chief Public Relations Executive for Vox Pops International, a video based research company. After completing an NCTJ Journalism Diploma, she has been involved in PR for two years, both nationality and internationally and has contributed articles to the BMRA and Market Research World.

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