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The new behavioral status quo for shopping and retail

How can behavioural science predict the future of retail?

By hook or by crook, online spending surged quickly as the pandemic took hold. In March 2020, Walnut Unlimited’s ‘Understanding the Nation’ survey discovered that only 18% of Brits had increased online spending because of the pandemic, but by April this had jumped up to 45%, and, by December, a massive 68%.

Back in January, as we approached the end of the winter lockdown, further data suggested that online shopper behaviors were set to continue, with 37% saying that after the winter lockdown they would be more likely to buy most items online than they were before lockdown – signaling a shift in status quo behaviors. As of right now, we are seeing numbers decline for increased online shopping as the in-store retail sector has reopened. The data points to 43% making more online purchases than normal, suggesting that the habit of online shopping over in-store is here to stay for a huge portion of the UK population.

Is physical retail officially dead?

When looking at retail destinations where people planned to increase spend this year, online topped the list, beating the high street, shopping malls and other in-store environments, despite the already large increase we have seen over the past year.

But all has not been completely lost. The drive to return to brick and mortar stores was there for some. We saw Primark – a non-online retailer – elected the most popular store to return to by Brits, suggesting that people were mostly happy shopping online where they were able to. When asked separately about what their favorite stores were, Amazon came out on top, significantly higher than other retailers – further highlighting a shift in preference to the online format of shopping.

So why are people sticking with online shopping?

Behavioral science offers a simple explanation for many of these shifts. As humans, we develop preferences for things merely because we are familiar with them (known in behavioral science as Familiarity Bias). The pandemic forced people to try online shopping, and now that they have, they are familiar and comfortable with the process.

Meanwhile, we are also unlikely to shift our behaviors unless there is a compelling reason to do so (Status Quo Bias). We’ve become comfortable with shopping online now. For those who can see clear benefits over shopping in-store, it’s going to be hard to shift them back into the shops. Shoppers need to be clearly shown what benefit there would be to them for visiting a physical store over getting the items delivered. This is a huge task for any retailer with a stake in physical stores, but made easier when human understanding and a behavioral science lens is employed.

How can retailers make the most of these new online behaviors?

As well as helping to understand new behaviors, many brands are turning to our behavioral science expertise to also help integrate solutions, nudges and ideas based on the new shopping status quo.

Recommendations and reviews from others who are like us are incredibly powerful in encouraging us to make purchases. Online is the ideal environment to dial up this Social Proof: make the most of shopper reviews to boost popularity of your products and give shoppers the confidence to place the order.

Behavioral science also suggests we’re more likely to make a choice when there are limited options available (Limited Choice Bias). Don’t overwhelm online shoppers with too much to choose from. Make use of filters to help people ‘chunk’ the available products into more manageable amounts to choose between to encourage them to make that purchase.

When showing price reductions online, think carefully about how you show how much the person could save. Anchoring Bias highlights the importance of the first piece of information we see with regards to how we perceive information that follows. Clearly showing the original price or actual amount saved can help to increase value perceptions and make people feel they are getting a good deal.

Behavioral science is helping brands to understand this new status quo, as well as functionally adapt to it.

Harriet Woolley, research manager, Walnut Unlimited.

For more on the reinvention of retail, check out The Drum’s Retail hub, where we explore everything from livestreaming e-commerce to AR shopping and conscious consumerism.

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