10 Unexpected Things we Learned in 2015

By Paul Conley, Content Marketing Director, The NPD Group

Every year at this time we start thinking about New Year’s resolutions. Our goal -- which mixes ambition and realism -- is to choose resolutions that are both worth doing and actually possible.
In 2015, we chose wisely.

Our resolution for this past year was to find unusual insights about consumers. Or to put it another way, we wanted to get smarter in different ways about the same things.

So we looked hard, and in new ways, at the entire world of consumer research, general merchandise, and retail. We asked new questions, collected new data, and looked through different lenses at things we’d looked at before.

And it worked.

We’re just a little bit smarter this year than last. And that seems reason enough to look back with pride on 2015.

It also seems reason enough to share some of what we know now.

What follows are some of the unexpected things we’ve learned. Some of them are encouraging. Some of them are reason for concern. Some of them are funny. Some are just weird. But every one of them can make you just a little bit smarter, too.

Amazon is part of the family now.

Everyone knows Amazon is big. But the e-commerce giant has always kept some of the statistics about its size a secret.

Earlier this year, we teamed up with CivicScience to learn one of those secrets -- just how deep into the American home Amazon’s Prime service reaches.

By conducting a series of polls, we learned one of every four American households has access to a Prime account. That gives Amazon extraordinary penetration in a nearly endless number of product categories, reinforces consumers’ growing expectation that e-commerce orders come with free delivery, and makes the online retailer a powerhouse in entertainment. (Only Netflix has a larger number of video subscribers.)

Don’t touch that dial! (It’s not connected to anything.)

Years ago, when your parents were children and dinosaurs roamed the earth, watching television was an adventure. If the TV was too loud, it attracted saber-tooth tigers. And storms in the Ice Age played havoc on reception. The only solution was to sit close to the screen and constantly adjust a pair of rabbit ears that were attached to the console.

TV today is nothing like that. In fact, it’s not even anything like the remote-control/cable box era you remember. TV is increasingly app-driven and Internet-delivered. Early in 2015, our data showed half of U.S. homes already owned a “connected” TV device that let them stream content from Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, and similar services. And by November of this year, we predicted 82 percent growth in such devices through 2018.

People shop for the experience.

If brick-and-mortar stores have a counter to the power of Amazon, it’s likely in consumers’ interest in buying memories.

When we began examining the phenomenon of experiential purchasing -- in which a retailer offers consumers a chance to buy an experience rather than just an object or service -- we were fascinated to see just how widespread the approach has become at retail.

From cooking classes at Whole Foods, to fitness classes at Macy’s and Lululemon, to outdoors education through REI, Eastern Mountain Sports, and Cabela,  it’s clear people go to stores to do something more than just shop.

It’s the Kardashian’s world. We just sell stuff in it.

Throughout history, our idea of what is beautiful has been influenced by portraits and celebrities. And particularly by portraits of celebrities. Whether it’s Degas’ ballerinas, Toulouse-Lautrec's visions of Parisian nightclub dancers, Veronica Lake’s patriotic hairdo, or the athletes of the ESPN body issue, we think a person is beautiful because someone deemed them worthy of a picture.

But what does it mean when celebrities start taking pictures of themselves?
In 2015, it meant “selfies” were the new standard by which we judge beauty. And consumers responded by learning the make-up techniques of strobing and contouring that are so popular among selfie-obsessed celebrities.

Red state, Blue state shoppers.

There seems little doubt that 2015 will be remembered as the year everyone in America decided to stop talking to absolutely everyone who didn’t agree with them about absolutely everything.

Once we were a land defined by the idea of “E Pluribus, Unum.” Now we’re the land of red states, blue states, and blocking people on Twitter.

So although we weren’t surprised, we were saddened, to learn that even our shopping habits had split along partisan lines.

Burgers and hot sauce are as American as apple pie.

There was, however, one thing that united us in 2015: We all ate.
And surprisingly, many of us ate the same things.

In a world torn asunder, many of us turned for solace to that most American of institutions: ground meat. And diversity, not fragmentation, was the norm in kitchen as hot sauces found a home in more than half of American households.

Kids today are nothing like kids today.

We spent a good part of this year trying to understand Millennials, the generation that seems to defy conventional ideas about marketing, advertising, and consumerism itself. And what we learned was that our idea about the generation needs some adjusting. Because it turns out there are two generations of Millennials.

There is no joy in Mudville . . . and no joystick in Farmville.

Baseball was once the great American pastime. But it fell out of fashion when kids realized the game required that they be outdoors and swinging a bat, rather than indoors and yanking a joystick. But times are changing. Sort of.

Children today are moving away from home computers for gaming. Mobile devices are now the most common platform for video games among kids ages 2-17.

Parents, curmudgeons, baseball historians, and others who bemoan the decline of non-electronic play can take heart from this news: because children can carry their mobile devices to parks and backyards where they can play video games out in the fresh air. And if you line the kids up appropriately, in a sort of diamond formation, it almost looks like they’re playing baseball!

Men carry stuff, too.

As 2015 began, we learned sales of women’s handbags slumped in the prior year. But sales of bags to men saw double-digit growth.

It turned out men had stuff they wanted to carry around, and that even the largest wallets weren’t adequate to the task.

More importantly, wheelbarrows failed to catch on with office workers and fashion-forward types.

Fowl Play

But the most important thing we learned this year was in the world of philosophy. By looking deeply at sales data, we were able to answer the age-old question, which came first, the chicken or the egg? (Spoiler alert: It was actually the goose.)
And with that out of the way, we turn now to our resolution for 2016 -- to solve the P versus NP problem.

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