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Last week’s Omnishopper conference in Minneapolis brought shopper and consumer insights professionals together with their research partners to address some of the big changes influencing shopper expectations and the new marketing challenges in an omnichannel retail environment.

While better understanding and navigating these changes in shopping behaviour and with retail being the main topic of conversation, the Omnishopper conference is ostensibly about the science behind shopper/consumer behaviour and the evolving technology providing new measurement techniques. This begins with the most basic understanding of shopping psychology via dual-process theory: identifying so-called ‘system 1’ behaviours – those fast, automatic, intuitive shopping decisions – versus the more deliberate, slower and analytic ‘system 2’ decision making approach. In application, the science of shopper marketing now extends from surveys and focus groups to new, promising technologies for the measurement of shopping behaviour at the crucial point of purchase – from refining eye tracking software, online shopper communities and the new possibilities presented to market research by virtual reality platforms.

Throughout the learning sessions, brand insights teams presented several case studies with partner research providers, providing inspiration for better research design and clearer, wider dissemination of important research findings through large organisations. In the food and beverage space, Beam Suntory and C+R Research utilised a mix of trackers, online communities and field interviews to better understand the size of opportunity for spirits brands during the holiday season. Mars Chocolate North America and Johnson & Johnson each presented their journeys toward e-commerce and omnichannel opportunities in confectionary and personal care categories, respectively, highlighting areas of grocery where e-commerce lags behind (for different reasons). Also on the hot topic of internet retailing in grocery, Clorox and PRS IN VIVO presented convincingly on the need to optimise exterior packaging and product images for e-commerce, arguing that important exterior product claims and benefits are not always immediately apparent on the “endless shelf” of e-commerce.

Understanding consumers and communicating values in perilous times

The intersection of demographic change with political, social and cultural division was a key discussion point for many marketers. The conference began with Peter Horst, former chief marketing officer of The Hershey Company, discussing the challenges presented to brands by the current political climate in the US. Achieving relevance and brand “intimacy without being creepy” was the topic of his keynote, highlighting the social media backlash to Pepsi-Cola’s now infamous Kendall Jenner ad – an effort derided as inauthentic by many and not presented as a credible or ‘real’ extension of a soda brand to the realm of social advocacy. Horst nevertheless advocated for a values-based approach to marketing, but one that is true to all the constituents of the brand (not just consumers) with social engagement that is focused, appropriate, authentic and always sustained.

Marketers must have a better understanding of how consumers see themselves and the changes occurring in culture. Edwin Wong of Buzzfeed, one of Wednesday’s keynotes, began his presentation by defining culture as “how to be human through society”. As a researcher from one of pop culture’s most relevant websites, Wong argued in his presentation that the selection and consumption of online content was the clearest window into the fragmented, individualised way that consumers identify themselves and engage socially.  Brand relevance will need to be achieved by appealing to this new slice of consumers (according to the US census, “more than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority or ethnic group” by 2020) but demographic boxes alone yield little insight. Wong’s “psychographic” approach focuses on the self-identification of young consumers in terms of race, gender and political views via the content they choose to consume and share with others. This content is veering away from the mainstream, with radical politics, geek culture and so-called ‘fringe’ interests becoming commonplace.

The Amazon/Whole Foods elephant

Of course, last week’s conference sessions took place in the immediate aftermath of this month’s retailing headline news: Amazon’s US$13.7 billion bid to acquire the upscale US grocery chain Whole Foods.

While the move has the potential to accelerate the US grocery segment’s slow shift to e-commerce, the proposed acquisition has been interpreted in a number of different ways. Some participants at Omnishopper speculated about the impact of Whole Foods’ brick & mortar stores and warehouses on Amazon’s fulfilment capabilities, while others focused on the impact that Amazon’s cutting-edge retail technologies – especially the checkout-free Amazon Go concept – could eventually have on the Whole Foods banner. Another potential impact is the valuable data potentially available to Amazon from the high-earner Whole Foods shopper, a segment likely to overlap significantly with Amazon Prime members and shoppers.

Sentiment on the move was generally positive but participants seem divided on the scope and pace of changes presented by Amazon’s aggressive push into traditional US grocery retailing.

Where are we heading?

For consumer brands, the importance of e-commerce is clearly growing but at different rates of speed. An omnichannel universe for a mobile phone carrier or electronics retailer necessarily poses a different set of challenges to an impulse confectionary brand or common household products. Smart e-commerce strategies involve first identifying the products and portions of your business where internet retailing is convenient, affordable and worth investing in.

Loyalty remains more important than ever, sustaining and growing the consumer affinity for a brand even as the retail landscape evolves. An important step in fostering loyalty is a timely understanding of how consumers of tomorrow will respond and engage with commercial brands. In an era of real-time marketing mediums, the possibilities for reaching consumers are expanded but the risk of backlash is similarly high (and instant).

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