SHOPPER REPORT OCTOBER 2001

In The Aftershock

The New Normal

Little Things Mean A Lot

Top Shopping Frustrations

Anticipated Spending

The New Value Challenges

IN THE AFTERSHOCK
In the aftershock of T-day, more consumers are:

  • Feeling risk averse and behaving accordingly
  • Worried about tough times ahead
  • Thinking about getting back to basics
  • Valuing home time and meals at home
  • Shopping and spending for altruistic reasons
  • Using comfort foods and chemicals (wine, beer, booze, herbals and pills) to feel better
  • Experiencing extra levels of stress and stress related problems like high blood pressure
  • Postponing personal and family air travel
  • Planning to go ahead with home repairs and improvements
  • Experiencing a passion of patriotism they've only read about before
  • Feeling kinship with New Yorkers and Washingtonians
  • Feeling more tired and actually sleeping more because they aren't sleeping well
  • Looking inward and talking about values
  • Connecting and reconnecting with friends and neighbors
  • Buying and flying flags, drinking coffee, and making and baking and doing and eating American hings like baseball and apple pies, meat loaf, chicken soup, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, spaghetti and meatballs, cookies and brownies
  • Thinking globally as well as nationally and locally
  • Trying to help survivor families as a way of mourning, connecting, appreciating and fighting back
  • Expecting to defer frivolous purchases
  • Seeing police and firefighters - and some political leaders - as actual heroes.
  • Hugging harder, and more often, and more people.
  • Looking more people in the eye

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THE NEW NORMAL
As everyone and everything gets back to a new kind of normal, some consumers are pulling back while others are reaching out to friends and family as well as order and efficiency. The level of aftershocks varies greatly. Even within the same household, the impact ranges from "I don't let it bother me" to nightmares and intermittent weeping.

People mourn and adapt to loss in different ways and along different time lines. In some families, daughters are taking the terror in stride while sons are weeping on mom's and/or dad's shoulders. In other families, it's the daughters, or moms, aunts, uncles or nanas that are struggling. Most families are sympathetic to those who have been hardest hit by the terrorism. It's as though everyone understands that no one is exempt from this particular hatred.

  • For some shoppers (and employees), stress levels are high and energy is low.
  • Many shoppers (and some stores) have lost their sparkle.
  • Stores that routinely irritate shoppers (see irritant list below) will lose out to stores that run smoother operations.

A recent incident observed in a Philadelphia supermarket is a case in point: Hearing than a missing special was really out of stock and not just somewhere else in the store, a shopper looked more sad than angry. She said "Gee," stood still for a few moments, then walked out of the store with a weight in her step that didn't come from grocery bags. This shopper was probably low on frustration tolerance, a psychological cousin to lowered physical resistance to infection. In recent years, exceeded frustration tolerance has been expressed in road rage and related acts of violence. While we're in mourning for our own lost sense of safety, frustration is triggering depression instead of violence. (Since violence almost certainly begets violence, we can only hope that reduced media violence lowers the level of violence altogether.)

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LITTLE THINGS MEAN A LOT
In today's scheme of things, the shopping frustrations on the list below are extremely minor and easy to dismiss. At the same time, they are widespread enough to bother lots of shoppers and directly influence their choice of stores to shop and stores to avoid whenever possible.

Finding merchandise stacked too high at the top of this list has nothing to do with little old ladies who can't reach up or the September 11 tragedy involving very tall towers. We wondered enough about both to check the demographics of the response and the dates of survey returns. What we found was that younger shoppers were almost as irritated by high stacks of merchandise as older shoppers and responses on questionnaires completed before T-day (September 11) were no different on this item than those completed later.

High stacks are frustrating because:

  1. They slow down shoppers who are trying to get through the store as quickly as they can.
  2. They are also perceived as dangerous. While irritation or frustration seems more salient than danger, it's the combination of danger and irritating impedance that puts the high stacks on the top of this chart.
  3. Reaching for the top, or shifting merchandise to get to particular item(s) takes time and ingenuity or help from a rarely available employee.

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TOP TEN SHOPPING FRUSTRATIONS

Percent of shoppers saying they are very
or somewhat frustrated by:
Percent Very Frustrated Total Percent Frustrated
Merchandise stacked too high 56% 77%
Delays in check out 55% 68%
Out of stock on adv. Items 53% 72%
Sales and coupons restricted to multiples or largest sizes 51% 68%
Uninformed employees 49% 66%
Dirty restrooms 47% 62%
Displays blocking aisles 46% 64%
Uninterested store employees 45% 67%
Hard to find merchandise 44% 62%
Unpriced items 43% 56%

There's nothing new about Americans' impatience with checkout delays, except that more consumers are telling us that delays are easier to tolerate in small neighborhood stores where they are likely to know another customer or some of the cashiers.

During storms and similar emergencies, shoppers accept out of stocks on advertised and/or regular items as things that can't be helped. At other times, shoppers who are busy or depressed find ad item outs close to intolerable and talk about avoiding stores to avoid the experience.
Tighter coupon restrictions have been generating complaints all year. Now, many consumers who had cut back on coupon use are using the economic downturn as a reason to pay more attention to coupons and feeling irritated when they find that using coupons pays much less than they remember.

ADDITIONAL SHOPPING FRUSTRATIONS
The add-on list of frustrations that follows covers some shopper irritations that are somewhat less widespread but still heavyweight in terms of numbers. Forty percent of our shoppers are (still) very frustrated by missing and wrong shelf prices and price marketing. Charging more than the advertised price has been cut in half in terms of the percentage of shoppers who find it a major irritant. But hostile and edgy employees appear on our list of frustrations for the first time-with more than a third of our shoppers marking it a major frustration and more than half acknowledging that it is a current frustration. It's one more reason that stores that are chosen as good places to work are making money and have real reasons to brag.

Percent of shoppers saying they are
very or somewhat frustrated by:
Percent Very Frustrated Total Percent Frustrated
Missing/wrong shelf prices 41% 59%
Poor price marking 40% 56%
Long delays for telephone help 39% 51%
Charging more than the advertised price 38% 48%
Widespread lack of good service 37% 50%
Hostile and edgy employees 35% 52%

ANTICIPATED SPENDING
Before T-day, about thirty percent of our shoppers said they expected to cut back on some spending because of layoffs and the economy.

In the aftermath of T-day, most all of the shoppers who talked with us expect to keep up basic spending even if they don't feel like it. But about twenty percent talked about deferring travel and rethinking some luxury purchases.

"I expect to keep my spending--as normal as possible--for two reasons--one to bring a sense of normalcy back to my life and two--not to allow terrorists to invade my life any further than they already have. I expect the economy to rally--I will invest, spend, donate and volunteer in support of my country and it's people."

"I'll probably do my normal amount of spending but will stock up on certain things like canned food. I was already in a pull back from spending phase and will continue this."

"We are doing whatever we can to help. As far as spending is concerned, I will spend in order to give to the families of the victims, but for my own pleasure. I have no desire to spend right now. I'll buy what I have to, but not anything I don't have to have"

"I plan to continue with plans made before the event such as replacing sliding doors and windows in my condo at the shore and other services. However, I do not plan to travel by plane in the near future. MY holiday shopping will be "as usual." I just bought some technology stock and some defense effort stock. I have great faith in our system and our people."

"I am continuing to spend as normal. I must admit I feel like I want to hoard my money back, but really what good is money going to do me if something really big happens? We are involved in the stock market and yes we have "lost" a lot recently but things will turn around, maybe not next week or next month, but eventually."

"We plan on going on as usual-financially. I hope the rest of us follow suit."

"I must admit that I just cancelled a vacation I was planning for next month, not so much because of a fear of flying or hijacking or even money. It was mostly fear of a war breaking out. Otherwise, we are continuing as usual - not curbing our spending. What's different is that we are more aware of our personal safety and are hugging each other a little more tightly and never miss an opportunity to say 'I love you'".

"I want to keep up my spending patterns. It is important that we do not let 'them' disrupt our way of life too much. It seems to me that is what 'they' want."

"In the back of my mind, high ticket spending would be foolish right now. Too many uncertainties. I know this will not help the current economy but struggle is ok. As we need things i.e. the car is unrepairable, etc., those things will be replaced. But feel good spending is on hold. Besides, more material things won't help any of us feel good right now anyway. We've all had the opportunity to consider the people in our lives and the fact that they are more important than possessions."

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THE NEW VALUE CHALLENGES
We usually report on perceptions of price value - what American consumers perceive they are getting in return for what they are spending. They haven't forgotten price value and don't want to forget about it. They are still concerned about drug prices and less than happy about meat prices. But right now, many are thinking more about personal and social values. Worries about safety and the newly coined "homeland" security are sharing talk-time with worries about American values: our chief executives' salaries; our corporate greed; our endless appetite for designer clothes and luxury cars and oversized homes and fattening foods. Many of our consumers see the terrorism as a horrible wake-up call for consumer and business introspection and for understanding the values of those who hate us.

These consumers want justice for the terrorists, but hope for wisdom and understanding on our part as well. They want to understand what it is about us that our enemies see as so hateful. They want to use the crisis as an opportunity for growth as individuals and for rethinking their roles as consumers and civilized people.

Many middle class consumers are worried about the punishment that many businesses are taking (and the beating they themselves have taken in the market). But like some economists and business leaders, they are also worried about returning to business as usual too fast: Business Week did an October 1st cover story on Rethinking The Economy that looks at dealing with defense, the financial system, and the social safety net. Consumer rethinking is naturally different. They are asking if there has been too much emphasis on the short-term bottom line and too little on people and the environment and society as a whole.

"To America's business leaders I say: Take care of your people, then, as you rebuild (and you must), do it with an eye on the impact your business has on our interconnected web of life: Does it pollute? Does it exploit other people? Women? Does it discriminate in whom it hires or promotes? Will it damage our health? At the end of the day, are you proud of your product and of the people who work for you?"

"We complain about corporate greed but we are guilty as consumers of consuming too much too thoughtlessly. Spending seems patriotic right now, but spending on luxuries seems wrong as well as risky."

"We have long been spending on ourselves as individuals instead of us collectively as one nation. The bigger SUV, the newest Nintendo, the latest designer clothes. When President Bush announced the tax cut, I thought, "Keep my $300 and spend it wisely to ensure our safety and security." That fancy car is useless if you can't park it safely on your streets. I know that the USA is indeed the best country on this earth and we will get through this. My husband and I talked about what we should do in this time of crisis and uncertainty to protect our future. We are not changing a thing. We will spend as we have. If there is a difficult time for us as citizens, we will get through this. Without freedom, without security, without truth, without compassion----there is no meaning in mere money."

"I hope that once the continuous news coverage subsides that we don't look at the situation as just one small click on the remote control before we go back to our usual diet of sit-coms and home shopping shows. Will America actually find "reality TV" worth watching now? You don't get more real than what has happened to thousands in this last week! God Bless America!"

In summary, we have been gratified by our consumers' courage in the face of fear and their love of country, freedom, and their fellow human beings.

© 2001The Consumer Network, Inc., PO Box 42753, Philadelphia, PA 19101. 215/235-2400. Email comments to ShopperReport@cs.com or to Mona@MonaDoyle.com.

 

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