Retail Reflections

The Return of Non-Essential Stores: How The Pandemic Is Changing Our Pleasure Based Retail Habits!

The Return of Non-Essential Stores: How The Pandemic Is Changing Our Pleasure Based Retail Habits!

Monday 15th June 2020 wasn’t just any ordinary day. It was the day that non-essential shops in UK were allowed to open their doors to their “shop till you drop – starved customers”, for the first time in nearly three months since the coronavirus lockdown began on 23rd March.

How did the consumers react and what drives their reaction?

I had a series of one-to-one interviews (fifteen interviews over two hours, to be precise) with different BBC local presenters around the country to discuss the psychology of the shops reopening. 

Here’s a link to one of the interviews at 1 hour and 19 minutes, while in this blog I elaborate a bit more about the shopping behaviour in the “new normal” retail landscape.

To queue or not to queue

We’ve seen long queues forming outside Primark, Sports Direct, Apple, to name but a few stores, where customers waited for ages to get in store.

Generally, long waiting queues have negative emotional responses, and more so if there’s no distraction (mental or physical) to fill the time to divert the attention from the wait. However, people often wait in long queues to enter the popular stores, especially those stores that are associated with exclusivity and luxury. In fact, the anticipation of self-gratification and excitement makes waiting less burdensome. So, this is not something new.

But what is new under the current circumstances, is that for many of us, queuing for hours is the perfect opportunity to get out of the house. Psychologically speaking, without being consciously aware, we perceive things that cannot be obtained easily as being more valuable, hence this human tendency is more prominent now because for the last three months the non-essential stores were closed.

With the social distancing safety measures in place, consumers have self-conditioned beforehand to expect to get in long waiting queues anyway. It follows that many won’t really mind queuing because they want to feel a little bit of normality, to be out there with other people.

Which consumer category do you belong to?

We never had social distancing measures in place at this scale and in this way. What we always had was the common sense distance of not invading someone’s personal space, which was grossly distorted in crowded stores anyway.

But things have changed beyond our imagination.

What we are experiencing right now, is a new ambivalence – do we support our high streets or safe guard our health, or can we do both?

To that extent I see three new categories of consumers that I call euphoric, trepidatious, and waiting in the wings.

The euphoric type will act as if we’re out of lockdown completely. They are excitable personalities that will take every opportunity to pop out in the non-essential stores even if only to immerse themselves in browsing without purchasing. Many of those, who didn’t mind at all waiting in the long queues on Monday, might belong to this category.

For the trepidatious consumers, shielding away from non-essential shops is the best way to avoid the crowds and with that the possibility of catching the coronavirus. Their anxiety levels remain strong and many actually hold opposing views to the decision to open the non-essential stores at this stage of the lockdown.

Then there’s the third category, which I refer to as waiting in the wings (Me!), who will just wait for a little while to see how things are going to progress. This typifies those of us who will be looking for social proof, as we are still deliberating whether to shop in the physical stores or stick to the digital ones for now.

Experiential retail won’t be the same

Before the lockdown the so-called immersive experiential retail was a great countermeasure to a retail apocalypse. But the question now is how do you provide a wonderful and enjoyable customer experience if your customers are not allowed to touch products or try clothes on as before? After all, shopping is a tactile activity. 

Trying clothes on or touching products are pleasure-based habits and these are not easy to break because they stimulate our human brain reward centre, or in other words an enjoyable behaviour prompts our brain to release dopamine. And when this hormone is released, we feel great and we want to repeat the same behaviour again.

However, let’s not forget that consumers’ expectations in order of priority are different now. What they want to experience first and foremost is feeling safe and looked after when they enter the store.

If we couple this with the fact that there’s an average of two months for a new behaviour to become automatic, consumers might find following the safety measures that prevent excessive handling of products a little easier, because they were forced to abstain from shopping in the non-essential physical stores since the lockdown.

Then of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all behaviour so some will simply behave in their old ways, I’m afraid.

When emotions run high conflicts are close by

This will not be a familiar shopping experience, nor a normal shopping behaviour, not just because of the functional reasons, but also psychological ones.

As a matter of fact, whenever we enter the stores, we are going to experience cognitive dissonance, a mental process that feels stressful when our thoughts, feelings and actions are mismatched – shop but don’t touch, go this way but not that way.

I think that those more anxious consumers will closely monitor other fellow consumers’ behaviour, so the store security has to be ready to deal with incidents born out of customers’ frustrations and conflicts between them.

For now, I’m afraid shopping cannot be a leisure activity in the same way it was before the lockdown. Every one of us must adapt to the new normal.


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