Buy For Now
Evolution of consumer purchasing behavior over the past half-century is marked by technology, cultural revolution and redefined supply chains.
Harriet Meetz extended a tape measure across the expanse of her dining room table.
Notepad in hand, the Charlotte, North Carolina suburbanite jotted down width and length measurements and promptly walked over to her computer. She entered the dimensions into an online shopping venue for home accessories in search of the perfect tablecloth. Moments later, after viewing dozens of styles, fabrics, colors and prices, Meetz made her selection, pecked in her credit card number and received a guarantee from the retailer her quarry would be delivered the next day.
The shift from real-time to digital marketplace firmly solidified in America, today’s informed consumer enjoys more convenience, choice, selection and product than ever before. Everything from groceries to automobiles can be purchased online with a few clicks.
Many forces have been at play in the evolution of consumer behavior in America over the past half century. Key among them are the shifting demographics, advances in technology, changing societal values and enhanced supply chain and distribution channels that have brought a wide world of commerce to even the most remote locations.
While the internet has arguably been one of the most disruptive forces ever in consumer purchasing behavior, shifting consumer sands and trends are the norm, not the exception. Here’s a look at consumer behavior over the past half-century and a peek at where we might be headed.
Consumer Behavior Through the Years
1950s & 1960s
Ad Age Magazine called the ‘50s the “Decade of Consumerism,” referring to the post World War II era as a time where pent-up demand for clothing, appliances and automobiles – all in short supply during the war – fueled manufacturing.
Economic prosperity and the ensuing baby boom drove a surge of home-buying in the U.S.
Suburban newly married women, primary decision makers for household purchases, were primary targets of “Mad Men” era advertisers and achieving the “American dream” was a strong subtext influencing consumer behavior in the 50’s. Open-air strip-malls and a more mobile population led to “destination shopping” and a broader array of products to choose from.
Well-known brands dominating ad space and consumer awareness in the ‘50s included Chevrolet, Westinghouse, RCA, Birds Eye, Swanson, Timex, General Mills and Hamm’s.
Jell-O Brand Gelatin is an example of the push of advertisers to appeal to the “homemaker-role” many early 50’s-era women occupied. The successful appeal of the product led to brand extensions such as pudding and an entire line of lunch-box snacks in future decades.
Social and cultural change as outgrowths of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War define the volatile ‘60s as a coming-of-age era for the American consumer. A shift to youth oriented counterculture values meant less emphasis on materialism. Brands and products promoted young, exuberant lifestyles and freedom of choice.
Volkswagen’s “Think Small” campaign captured the zeitgeist of the era as did the colorful hip marketing approach of Braniff Airlines.
Consumers increasingly made purchasing decisions oriented to brands they could “relate to” and those conveying messages that rebelled against the status quo. Shopping malls grew to take a strong-hold in the retail landscape with an increasing number of malls offering cinemas and restaurants making mall visits a popular entertainment option for families.
1970’s & 1980s
The recession and energy crisis of the early 1970’s led to belt tightening and the proliferation of discount and big box and retailers such as Kmart, Walmart and various dollar stores. Price sensitivity was heightened among consumers who often blurred the value/price equation.
Judith Zaichkowsky, associate professor of marketing at Simon Fraser University, in her scholarly paper, “Consumer Behavior: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” labeled the ‘70s consumer; The Problem Solver. “Consumerism was everywhere,” she said. “Consumers were thought to actively search for information about the products and services they bought.”
Technology advances in electronic products at the end of the decade saw a surge in Japanese brands take market share in televisions, radios, and audio visual equipment like VCRs and cassette players. Brands such as Sony, JVC and Pioneer Electronics were industry leaders.
The ‘80s saw a return to affluence and materialism. Designer labels were “it” products in fashion and names such as Tommy Hilfiger, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Yves St. Laurent captured what was once a “pedestrian” market for jeans.
A wave of new shopping mediums arrived on cable television. Home Shopping Network was born in 1982 and QVC followed in 1986. Pitchmen and women were now welcomed into the homes of millions of buyers eager to forge “relationships” with celebrity endorsers (George Foreman Grill anyone?).
1990s & 2000s
Socio-economic changes, Sunbelt migration, an aging baby boomer cohort coupled with a declining U.S. birthrate, the dot-com boom/bust and the surging power of the internet drive more changes in consumer behavior over these two decades than any before them.
Ebay, Amazon and Overstock mark the shift to “e-tail” illustrating the great migration from bricks and motor stores to online shopping. By 2000, seven out of the eight largest U.S. retailers in 1980 had filed for bankruptcy, been acquired or lost their place as a major industry player, according to Delloite Consulting.
Iconic brands like Sears and J.C. Penny’s simply didn’t keep pace with the changing consumer landscape, failing to capture the imagination of their existing customer base or attract new customers.
In 2013 IPSOS, a global market research company, released a study ranking the internet as the primary source of new product information and brand discovery for millennial (ages 18-34) consumers.
Today’s Consumer Influences
Consumers today are more informed than ever before. The proliferation of product choice, information access, variety of distribution channels and acceleration of technology have reshaped expectations of what products and services are available and how quickly we can have them.
Consumer markets are also more fragmented than ever, adding additional complexity to brand and retailer strategies. Boomers, Gen X and Y, and the coveted Millenial markets have different motivations and purchasing influences.
“We all purchase for a reason but the reasons are different between generations,” said Anne Obarski former retail executive and founder of Merchandise Concepts, a customer service strategy and training consultancy. “Boomers are loyal to brands they’ve used over a lifetime. They use Tide detergent because their mother and grandmother used it and it works. Younger generations ask brands what they stand for. Chipotle, Tom’s Shoes, Apple, and Nike are examples of brands that use messaging and action to demonstrate how they make the world a better place.”
Speed of service and ubiquity of product are huge influences in today’s marketplace. With ever-greater concentrations of consumers in cities, same day product delivery is becoming a major influencer in how the urban consumer shops.
“Technology is creating more interactive environment for consumers and at the same time providing brands with actionable information allowing them to provide more of a personalized experience,” said Melissa Gonzales, author of “The Pop Up Paradigm: How Brands Build Human Connections in a Digital Age. “RFID (Radio-frequency identification) is used to enhance the dressing room experience. Knowing the shirt brought into the room, it allows the customers to interact with a touch screen and see the shirt in a different color, making experience seamless and allows sales associate to be more of a concierge to the customer. People want to buy into brands they believe in and inspire them,” says Gonzales.
Consumer today are also demanding choice, quality and price. This is creating more collaborative relationships between manufacturers and retailers.
“Retailers are increasing pivoting to private label to address cost and margin while at the same time offering their customers choice,” said Matt Sargent, senior vice president retail with Frank N. Magid Associates. Sargent said Target’s C9 apparel brand, manufactured by Champion is an illustration of this trend.
Future is Mobile
What will the big influencers be for tomorrow’s consumers?
We may be getting a glimpse of the future as cheaper, faster mobile technology and augmented/virtual reality play a larger role in the consumer experience. Some clues to the future can be found in the gaming approach used by many to appeal to younger consumers.
Phil Lloyd is chief marketing officer for Snatch, a gaming platform using augmented reality to create a “treasure hunt experience” for users. Snatch is used as a marketing platform for brands and manufacturers such as Unilever.
“Brands need more ways to speak with targeted consumers that are fun, educational and entertaining,” said Lloyd. “Snatch isn’t interruptive in its approach to marketing. Consumers engage using mobile phones, enjoy the gaming experience and build relationships with brands.”
Online will continue to dominate, but there is room for innovative brick and mortar retailers. Department stores can co-exist and thrive in the presence of Amazon but only if they give customers a reason to shop there and connect in ways that are important to their customers and not available online.
One element sure to remain constant in looking at the future of consumer behavior: The ability to anticipate and respond to shifting consumer needs will separate the winners and losers at retail.
Change is indeed the name of the game.