By Marshal Cohen, Chief Industry Analyst – Retail, The NPD Group

The death of retail as we now know it is greatly exaggerated. Retail isn’t dying; it’s evolving. Just like it has done before. There has always been disruption in the retail sector. A major disruption occurred in the late 1800s when Sears introduced the catalog and brought the entire store into the homes of U.S. consumers. This gave Sears the same advantage over brick and mortar stores that ecommerce sites have today. Sears was simply responding to the needs of its customer since 60 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas at the time and didn’t have convenient access to stores. Sears would bring the store right to them.

The same principle of meeting customer needs holds true for the current retail evolution, which is being driven by a confluence of change. Changing consumer attitudes, behaviors, and demographics; ongoing channel and digital disruptions; and increasing competition for consumer mindshare and dollars are forcing a shift in long-held paradigms – continuing the status quo is no longer an option.

It’s now about customer engagement, not customer acquisition. Rather than a multichannel strategy, the strategy now needs to focus on the customer and finding new ways to deliver the products they want, when they want them, whether online or at a physical location. It’s no longer about brands, big logos, and price promotions, it’s about engaging consumers with experiences, personalization, quality, service, and value.

The traditional retail business model that has stood the test of time over the decades is now transforming at the speed of light. Retailers competing to stay in the game are turning their ecosystems on end, breaking down old-school beliefs, and reinventing themselves. Amidst all of this change, however, is one constant that has been a guiding principle of retail since it began and that is: know thy customer. Those retailers and brands that survive and thrive are those that base their decisions on the needs and wants of their customers; those that know their customers best and act on that knowledge.

Knowing Thy Retail Customer

Consumer Economy:

More than eight years after the Great Recession, the U.S. economy is improving at a slow and steady pace, but the consumer landscape has been fundamentally reshaped. Consumers entered 2017 with more confidence in their financial situation than they have had in years, but their attitudes and behaviors around spending have changed.

Even though incomes are improving, real income is still comparable to where it was in 2007, and that is impacting consumer spending decisions. The growth in single-person households has also decreased the number of dual-income households. Healthcare costs are growing exponentially and will continue to erode disposable income. National student loan debt is at an all-time high-and is expected to double in 10 years, causing Millennials to delay marrying, purchasing cars, buying homes, and making other major purchases. Retail sales and overall consumer spending, key drivers of economic growth, are suffering as a result of lackluster income growth and increased expenses. Looking at sales across the broad set of industries tracked by NPD, we see spending slowing in many categories, particularly in traditional bricks-and-mortar channels.

When consumers do spend, they have a variety of options vying for their dollars, including many that are not tangible products. Consumers are exhibiting an interesting shift in spending to the experiential, demonstrating their desire for something more, and something different – like activities, travel, and entertainment. For example, the U.S. government reports that from 2010 to 2015 consumer spending on sports and recreational vehicles increased by 45 percent, spending on foreign travel by 36 percent, and on hotels and motels by 43 percent. Spending outside of measured consumer goods categories is typically increasing faster than total consumer spending on average.

A Multicultural/Multigenerational Mosaic:

Today’s retail consumers collectively represent a multicultural, multigenerational mosaic. By 2044, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that more than half of all Americans will belong to a minority group, which is any group other than non-Hispanic White alone. By 2060, nearly one in five of the nation’s total population is projected to be foreign born. Overall, Millennials are more diverse than the generations that preceded them, with 44.2 percent being part of a minority race or ethnic group. Even more diverse than Millennials are the youngest Americans: those younger than 5 years old. In 2014, this group became majority-minority for the first time, with 50.2 percent being part of a minority race or ethnic group.

Millennials and Boomers are still the sweet spot demos for many retailers. Millennials have now surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation and they are coming of age, working, developing careers, and raising families. Some 1.3 million Millennial women gave birth for the first time in 2015, and they now account for the vast majority of annual U.S. births, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Baby Boomers are refusing to be pushed aside by the younger generation or ignored by retail, and still account for the bulk of consumer spending growth in major products and goods categories.  As Boomers age, over the next 10 years we will see dramatic growth in the population of consumers over age 65, influencing spending in new ways.  As consumers retire, they have less disposable income and spend less. More than half of households over the age of 65 are in the bottom 40 percent of income. Also, older consumers tend to spend disproportionally more on services and experiences instead of products.

To know thy consumer is to also understand that within each of these demographic groups are sub- segments that think and behave differently from others in the same group. The needs and wants also vary. Fortunately with the use of data, insights, and analytic solutions, like consumer segmentations, retailers can get to know their customers up close and personal.

Onward and Forward

Whether driven by want or need, consumers will always be in the market for goods and services. Retail, in whatever format —physical or virtual — will continue to exist. Retailers and brands that are in it to win it will recognize the need to rethink the retail experience they provide. They will build business models that offer experience, service, and value to their customers and reflect the diversity of generations, life stages, and other influences that make up our world today.

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