If retailers think their summer sales look too good to resist right now, they may want to hold that thought until August.
That’s about how long, on average, Americans are willing to wait for a good retail deal—57 days, or about two months. The wait is fostered by remorse. Big purchases make more than half of all shoppers feel a sense of loss and guilt, according to a survey of 2,000 U.S. shoppers by online coupon site RetailMeNot. So many just wait it out until the price dips to an accepted comfort level, either by reduction or by coupon.
This is in direct conflict with how the Great American Shopping Splurge has been characterized for many years. The retail binge—a willingness to give in, to abandon caution and thrift—is supposed to be a reward, often a deserved one. It may not be a new development that so many people feel guilty about indulging, but the willingness to wait so long signals a break in reward mentality.
It also might reflect a shift in shopper mindset, from affluence (I am what I own) to influence (I am what I do), according to recent research by the strategy consulting firm A.T. Kearney, which surveyed 270 executives. As a result, more shoppers may be angling for a new kind of relationship with the brands from which they buy, to trust-based from transaction-based.
And gaining trust means eliminating guilt.
A Crutch In An Era Of Guilt
The shift toward guilt can be correlated with the rising number of younger shoppers. Nearly three-quarters of consumers ages 25 to 34, which represents a large segment of millennials, told RetailMeNot they felt either “extremely guilty” or a “little bit guilty” after purchasing an expensive item. Overall, 56% of shoppers feel this way, with women outnumbering men (61% to 44%).
Many shoppers turn to coupons as a conscience crutch. “The saving reduces the ‘neural pain’—the sense of loss as cash is spent,” consumer psychologist Greg Tucker, also director of The Marketing Clinic, told RetailMeNot. Further, coupons can serve to justify purchases consumers may feel the need to defend to family, friends or spouses, he said.
More important than offering a crutch, however, is understanding the underlying cause for the break. Why are people feeling more guilt?
Part of the answer may exist in the transition in roles, from “affluence to influence,” consumers increasingly want to serve; this transforms their perceptions and expectations of the brands from which they buy. A merchant is no longer merely a supplier of needs; it is an ally and supporter of the shopper’s personal mission: I am what I do, and you are now part of that.
No wonder, then, that companies are investing so much in personalization and engagement efforts. The 270 executives surveyed for the A.T. Kearney report estimate that if they could more quickly adapt to marketplace shifts, it would be worth a 23% lift in revenue. Adaption is another way of saying “maintaining customer engagement.”
4 Tips for Guilt-Free Shopper Engagement
When adaption means the brand must become a supporter of the shopper’s mission, that means eliminating any barriers that will get in the way, including guilt. Here are four ways retailers, and shoppers, can do it.
- Be a source of empowerment. Retailers that can communicate a mutually beneficial link between what they sell and who their shoppers are (meaning what they do) are more likely to connect. Think of outdoor gear merchant REI and its mission to get more people out of doors and into nature. Its products are not inexpensive, but they are quality and therefore ensure that those who invest in them will use them for a long time. And that’s what a purchase at REI is for many—an investment in a better life.
- Encourage them to go “sale-ing.” It’s time to put a fresh spin on the old practice of discounting. Nearly one in five (19%) of the respondents to the RetailMeNot survey said they feel just as excited about their birthday or going on vacation as they do about a sale. Vacations and birthdays are both considered “me” time, an opportunity to indulge. Sales are normally structured as an opportunity to save, which underscores the need to alleviate shopping guilt. Discounts that are instead rooted in opportunity will resonate better. Communications like “We’re investing in your ‘me’ time—this 25% off is on us” have a sharply different meaning than “25% off all cashmere!”
- Become a partner. If retailers are expected to support their customers’ missions, they should partner with their causes as well. The shop Impact Everything, in Providence, Rhode Island, gives a portion of every sales purchase to a specific cause, from bullying and hunger prevention to stopping human trafficking and promoting veganism. Online shoppers can choose their cause from a menu, and a list of corresponding items will pop up. It’s not extremely pricey stuff (men’s shoes run about $90), but it targets younger, more price-careful shoppers who are more likely to be budgeting.
- Break the reward model. Many loyalty programs are designed so the shopper realizes a benefit after spending a considerable sum. It takes time, and with each week the value of the prize diminishes. In honoring consumers’ “I am what I do” identity, retailers can offer bonus points to shoppers who participate in brand-sponsored events, such as fundraisers. In 2017, Macy’s hosted a Thanks for Sharing campaign through which each member paid a $25 enrollment fee that was donated to charities. Members earned rewards equal to 10% of their purchases through the end of the year—a much higher percentage than the typical rewards program offers. On top of that, members benefitted charity; Thanks for Sharing raised $15 million.
If shoppers know their purchase will help feed a child in a week or make possible a life-changing adventure next weekend, they are less likely to put it off until August. The best part: Retailers can influence this spending with a clear conscience, as well.