Using Surveys to Better Understand Consumer Behaviour and Trends  

Philip Cleave
June 15, 2020

With retail sales falling by a record 18.1% year on year in April and consumer confidence at its lowest point since February 2009, it will come as no surprise to hear what a torrid time it’s been for retailers, as we gradually emerge from lockdown.

While there have been some small glimmers of hope, with online spending soaring to its highest on record in April 2020 at 30.7%, compared with 19.1% a year earlier , in general consumers remain unwilling to spend, despite the gradual easing of restrictions in recent weeks. This is both due to the worry about their own personal finances and negative feelings towards the wider economic climate over the next 12 months.

So, what does this mean for retailers and marketers?

Essentially, they will need to find ways of better understanding how Coronavirus is changing and influencing consumer behaviour and habits, so they can pivot their operations to meet these needs. As the growth in online spending is showing us, there are already green shoots of recovery, but it’s important to have the right tools to identify where these are, as this will be critical in driving how fast the economy can recover. Currently, online surveys are one of the best tools to achieve this.

Utilising surveys to gain a deeper insight into what consumers are thinking

From asking consumers’ questions about their personal finances and scrutinising their levels of market confidence, to finding out more about their propensity to spend. The flexibility that online survey technology offers to cover off many issues in a single questionnaire can be extremely valuable when you’re trying to keep on top of changing consumer behaviour and trends.

Similarly, with the ability to reach consumers in a myriad of ways, from email, text or a QR code, to a link on a portal, website banner, pop-up or a social media site, you’re more able to gather data quickly and ensure a healthier response rate. Consequently, this can help to generate more reliable data, which is critical when you will be using this insight to base future decisions on.

Using survey questions to examine the direction and depth of trends

From Debenhams and Primark, to John Lewis and Curry’s PC World. When you could consider how many retailers have moved their operations online during the pandemic, and others like Marks & Spencer who were already ahead of the game, investing £88.9m in their digital operations by the end of September 2019, the need to know whether these changes are temporary or permanent is critical, if you’re to make the right investment choices. This is where the value of continuous research is vital, as what might initially seem long-lasting may not actually be as permanent as you believe.

A great example of this would be a longitudinal survey which re-engages a range of demographics to see if their preference continues to shop digitally or whether they feel comfortable to return to a physical store and if they do not feel comfortable what stores could do to reduce nervousness.

Moving towards a more digital friendly in-store experience

Digital transformation continues to gather pace and it’s something we were already seeing before the pandemic, particularly with the growth in contactless payments, with 77% of people now saying they expect to use this technology even more going forward. Similarly, following the emergence of digital wallet apps such as Android Pay and Apple Pay, which can be used at a growing number of retail stores, 66% of all consumers now prefer to use their mobile apps at physical locations. In addition, 59% of consumers are also open to the use of voice-based interfaces in public places.

In some parts of the world, progress to reduce the level of physical interactions in-store has gone even further, namely with Amazon, who has managed to eliminate the physical checkout altogether.

Thanks to a mobile apps, cameras, sensors, and deep learning, shoppers at its Amazon Go stores in the US are able pick items off the shelf and leave the store without having to wait in line and pay. Instead, Amazon simply tracks what they’ve taken and automatically charges them accordingly.

When you take these advancements into account, it no longer seems so definite that online shopping will potentially replace physical stores completely, and that there is still a place for the on-site experience, just a slightly different one with technology used to limit physical interaction.

Consequently, if retailers are to better understand what technologies consumers are using and know what innovations they might be open to using in the future, they need robust evidence to build their business cases for investment and surveying both existing customers and prospective demographics can help them to get answers they need to shape the operations of the future.

Survey frequency and consistency are vital

While it’s important to ask the right questions, it’s also vital to distribute surveys frequently and be consistent about when you send them. So, if you sent your first survey at the start of the month, even if you don’t send out another one until the next quarter, similarly issuing it at the start of the month will help respondents start intuitively knowing when to expect your next one, which should help improve your survey’s response rate.

If you don’t have a sufficiently representative sample within your existing database of contacts to do this, then you could always try a consumer panels service. With access to millions of respondents across the world, retailers can immediately reach out to exactly the right demographics and sample size to quickly gather the insights they require. And it’s easy to repeat this process, again and again, which is ideal when you’re trying to keep track of evolving consumer trends and behaviour. Some online survey providers offer access to consumer panels as part of their services offering – but it’s prudent to check before you invest in one.

Striving to emerge stronger from lockdown

While we still don’t know how long this pandemic will continue for, or quite how severe its economic fall-out will be, retailers can still do more to improve their understanding of their consumers, as we all begin to establish new norms. Through regular surveying of their consumers, retailers will be able to gain this essential insight and give themselves the best chance of driving a faster market recovery.


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