Shopper Psychology and Retailer Strategy

Shopping. A thrill for some, a bore for others. A paradise for many, a prison for several. Depending on my mood, the occasion, and the vibe from others in the shop, I fall somewhere in between these parameters.

As Tammy Faye Bakker said, “I always say shopping is cheaper than a psychiatrist.” Shopping for relaxation and the term ‘retail therapy’ has infiltrated minds of many since as early as the 80s, making shopping a staple, particularly during the holiday season.

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday prompting retail strategies varying from coy to generous, consumer behavior consequently borders the lines of eccentric. Furthermore, with the holiday post-Christmas fever enticing and virtually plaguing the minds of consumers alike, I cannot help but wonder what commonality lies in the minds of producers and consumers.

By producer, I mean retailer, or the storefront from which a purchase is made. By consumer, the implication is the shopper, i.e. the buyer of the product. Since the buyer is the shopper, it makes sense to tailor things to a shopper’s needs or wants. Needs and wants are actually quite distinct, contrary to thesauruses and non-lyrical businessfolks who interchange them frequently. Not to be confused with the basic economics-related differences of needs and wants, when placed in a shopping context, these meanings can deviate slightly. Needs are essential, and at times necessary for a particular point in time, whilst wants can be more compulsive, and when looked at from a lateral perspective, unnecessary, but good to have.  I am a shopper motivated mainly by many, many wants! Which is why some may agree with Cat Deeley in that “I don’t shop because I need something, I just shop for shopping’s sake.

Bearing in mind the needs and wants of shoppers, retailers spend time, efforts, capital and much more to lure during the busy season. Sales, discounts, bulk buys, freebies, multi-buy bargains, coupons, gifts-with-purchase, and much more are common tactics utilized that have been successful over decades. But how do these virtually compulsive buying strategies compare to shoppers needs and wants?

Shopper Psychology

Bearing in mind the needs and wants and their varying levels of strengths, four emotive forms of enticement can be formulated, each of which attract shoppers to the act of shopping. These allow shoppers to grasp their shopping motivations better (if they have the ability or the time to grasp their emotions in a flurry of dancing options), and, as we will notice later, allow retailers to cater to the needs in a more apt way. The four emotion-based quadrants of shopper psychology are as follows.

Require: Products with a high need but a low want are generally ones that must be bought, hence required, usually for utility purposes, technical support, or anything that is necessary to sustain something else. Batteries, restroom essentials, a lightbulb, or other elements that support the function of an entire ambiance or event fall into this emotion. Some grumble over the added cost this adds to an otherwise emotionally gratifying shopping trip, often forgetting that these things are required for a reason.

Crave: With a high want but a low need, this feeling is best called crave. It depicts the urge to pick something up, knowing subconsciously that it may not be utilized frequently, will be a fad that loses steam quickly, and a perfect fit for the frivolous folks in the addiction framework. Strange but attractive items like impractical but fashionable accessory, holiday scented stuffed toys, or an nth belt, are all examples of things that, as mom might say, we really do not need! Notice how some of these end up taking volumes of space in closets, under beds, in bulging drawers, or in misty attics.

Love: For something with a low need and a low want, one may wonder why it is bought after all! This is where impulse buying is most prominent. Ever bought something because it was obscenely cheap (recall the 80% off price!)? Ever bought something because it came with a freebie? Or bought a cheap cosmetic product at a department store because of the herd of products that come free with it? These are examples of a love driven purchase.  Ever gazed at a magazine at checkout, or the packet of gum staring at you with minty eyes and claims, or the sale priced food item placed at the end of a cave-like aisle, which you find you have purchased in no time at all? These are all things you may not need nor want. Besides thoughtless purchases, the mass market variety of severely in vogue trends can fall here. Think of things you love to do because everyone else does them: sport Ed Hardy paraphernalia, buy the Avatar blu-ray, or pull out the Uggs in winter. Sounds like the societal pressure that retains a trend in the market, doesn’t it?

Desire: And finally, there is the golden product: the one you desire. You definitely want it, and you most certainly need it. Which is why, as the laws of economics go, it is either usually scarce or pricey. A princess cut diamond ring, an authentic artifact or accessory (versus the knockoffs), or the exorbitant initial prices of the Apple family products when they are released, and subsequently purchased in record breaking numbers. Electronics fall into this category; and while some may argue we do not fundamentally need or want them (thus quoting them as a love and not a desire), since our needs are basic combinations of  food+shelter+clothing, statistics and behavior patterns show that most houses do not sustain themselves without electronics or basic gadgets: computers, laptops, televisions and cellphones. Talk about an electrically warped world.

Retailer Strategy

And now, having understood the emotions that drive purchase for frequent shoppers, its logical to examine how retailers react and position themselves to the very same shopper needs. The role of a retailer is to persuade purchase. In financially troubled times like the wake of the meltdown of 2008, persuasion is more necessary from a value perspective. Yet, even in affluent times, persuasion is necessary to hypnotize eager shoppers to make more than just required and meaningful purchases (which sometimes result  in shopping blunders when a credit card bill leaves one wide-mouthed). I believe that in some cases, the type of shopper emotion seems to dictate the level of persuasion.

Blind Persuasion: For the equivalent of the love emotion, retailers conjure strategies embodying severe discounts, freebies, gifts-with-purchase, and the likes. Blinding shoppers with the hypothetical value they are getting, it is often quite a good deal, but one that was neither needed, nor wanted in the first place! Retail management courses have often taught of the layout of grocery stores, retail stores, etc., whereby enticing items are placed at checkout, or sale items are kept at the back of the store, as are grocery essentials like dairy, so that our unstoppable shopper eyes see much much more than necessary. The strategy works for retailers since they sell the bulk to momentarily love-lorn blinded shoppers. All of it.

Pull  persuasion: For the almost emotionless requirement, the consumers are likely to pull the products towards them due to the inevitable need for the purchase. It is not necessary to elevate this need to a want, or to cater to the emotional aspect too much. This is where retailers can utilize the pull strategy to create singular deals. As this is a requirement, no extra effort is needed from a retailer perspective to engage interest, although some knowledge delivery is necessary. Weekly discounts at stores like Home Depot or IKEA fulfill this quadrant; consumers there are most likely buying requirement items, pulling these towards themselves, and singular deals can elevate the purchase volume.

Push persuasion: Package deals are pushed towards consumers, either by the pricing attraction or the physical store placement, thereby enticing shoppers. Since this arena of products is already something that shoppers crave, retailers can push the glitzy promotional material towards them.  Besides a plethora of glossy, attractive and aspirational advertising, package deals come in handy, as do gifts with purchase (GWP). Getting a gift card with a purchase, or a host of related freebies, all fall into satisfying this quadrant. The world of glorified advertising rules the retailer strategy.

No persuasion: As Oscar Wilde says, you can resist anything but temptation. Indeed, for that which is high on a desire list, is often not on sale. Although, sometimes it may be, but is probably in limited quantities. The scarcity makes the product more valuable, almost masking the need and want all at once, but enticing shoppers to purchase it. This makes it more than simply a requirement, more than an itching craving, transforming it into a burning desire that drains pockets, trickles time in lines, and sometimes also satisfies. Think of holiday lines, the rush in stores on peak times, the limited time Amazon lightening deals or morning-only Black Friday and Boxing Day ones, and the gratification of getting the good deal on the last item. The retailer wins again!


What is your emotional driver for shopping? Seek your passion for shopping, and check to see how the retailer is catering to you, giving you options, but also enticing you to purchase more based on your emotion. Think about what you are shopping for, particularly during the holiday season. It has become a cat-mouse game these days, and some label holiday shopping as capitalism! Controversial for sure, but the truth is that retailers are getting more coy, somewhat more desperate, and ferociously competitive, since the shoppers have become less gullible, more frugal, influenced by social media to investigate the nooks of everything they buy, as I have spoken of in documenting how complex a modern shopping trip has become. Consumers have thus inevitably somewhat smarter (a smart consumer? It is a retailer’s biggest dilemma).

However, at the end of the day, shopping is supposed to be fun, and emotionally driven to a certain degree; so do not forget to enjoy yourself with this relaxing form of retail therapy, or gobble your favorite dessert whilst your significant other indulges in the therapeutic act. Remember, the brain lies a foot or two above the heart for a reason! It is okay to sway in love and desire and craving and fall for requirements, but at the end of the day, put a sprinkling of thought into it too.

Happy shopping!

17 responses to “Shopper Psychology and Retailer Strategy

  1. Thanks for the comments! You’re not the only one, many of us including me fall for the fantastic ‘deals’, aka tricks! And as I’d said, I’m swayed by more wants than needs too! Thanks for liking it.

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