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Is the Thrill Gone? Stressed Consumer In Shopping Slump

NEW YORK — "Keep it simple" is becoming more of a mantra among American consumers who are increasingly stressed out, time-pressed and dissatisfied with stores.<br><br>As they aim to live less complicated lives, their shopping patterns are...

NEW YORK — “Keep it simple” is becoming more of a mantra among American consumers who are increasingly stressed out, time-pressed and dissatisfied with stores.

As they aim to live less complicated lives, their shopping patterns are changing — often resulting in fewer shopping excursions. Whether scouting for apparel or other things, they’re looking to simplify the experience.

That’s the snapshot portrayed in a first-quarter survey taken by WSL, a Manhattan-based strategic marketing and retail consultant, and one that was buttressed by interviews with a handful of consumer behavior consultants and market researchers.

Most often, this dynamic is manifesting in consumers’ willingness to visit a given store less frequently than they did just a couple of years ago, even as they are inclined to shop a widening range of retail formats for various things, including apparel, over a year’s time. With the shopping frenzy of the late Nineties having peaked in 2000, consumers finally have said “enough” to all that chasing around, found WSL’s study, “How America Shops 2002: The Overstuffed Consumer.”

Today, American adults typically are shopping 1.9 stores per week, down from 2.9 in 2000.

“Back in the early Nineties and late Eighties, people were willing to run anywhere for the best price,” observed WSL president Wendy Liebmann. “Now, convenience is key. The big change is the talk about simplifying their lives. People are shopping fewer places per week.”

For example, 24 percent of the people polled by WSL during the first quarter of 2002 said they were making a weekly visit to a department store, down from 35 percent in 2000, while 36 percent said they were going to a discount store each week, down from 55 percent, two years earlier. And 54 percent said they were shopping a supermarket weekly, down from 76 percent in 2000, and only 11 percent reported weekly visits to a drugstore versus 22 percent.

It’s not that price doesn’t count anymore. Instead, said Liebmann, “offering good prices has become the cost of entry for stores. People know [good deals] can be found across retail channels.”

When asked why they visit a particular retailer, 61 percent of Americans surveyed said convenience was their primary consideration, including:

l Store location.

l Ability to consistently find the merchandise they want there.

l A shopping environment that enables them to find and purchase those items expeditiously.

Price ranked second to convenience as a catalyst in consumers’ store selection, pulling a 41 percent response, followed by well-stocked assortments, the top criterion for 33 percent.

As for formats where most apparel is purchased, the convenience-price gap was narrower. Convenience was cited as the top reason for selecting a type of store by 49 percent of women who shop mass merchants; 40 percent who choose department stores, and 29 percent who visit specialty clothing retailers. By comparison, price was listed first by 46 percent of women shopping mass merchants; 33 percent of those who select department stores, and 29 percent by specialty shoppers.

Those responses are based on WSL’s nationally represented sample of 453 women and 199 men, ages 18 to 70, with annual average household income of $46,000.

Feeding the trend is a return to lifestyle preferences that hark back 50 years, or so, when Americans generally spent more time relaxing and entertaining at home, observed C. Britt Beemer, chairman and founder of America’s Research Group, a Charleston, S.C.-based consumer behavior consultant and strategic marketer. “One of the things I hear every day is that people want to uncomplicate their lives,” noted Beemer, whose firm conducts weekly surveys of 10,000 to 15,000 consumers. “One way to do that is to stop going to stores that are not essential.”

Indeed, people are traveling less overall, according to ARG’s consumer research. They’re taking car trips that are 20 percent shorter, on average, than they were before Sept. 11, for instance. And ahead of Memorial Day weekend this year, 18 percent fewer Americans said they had plans to travel for it than they did for the prior year’s holiday. As a result, there’s been a resurgence in business for local establishments while a broad range of shops in enclosed malls have been experiencing monthly declines in customer traffic of 8 to 16 percent, according to ARG.

“It’s like we’re in a time warp,” Beemer offered. “Gallup was finding similar attitudes in the Fifties. These lifestyle shifts, plus the casualization of fashion, are making people more inclined to go to a restaurant or a movie than to go shopping. This is catastrophic — unless you are Wal-Mart.”

Most current shopping, beyond bare necessities, Beemer noted, is focused on home goods and seasonal bargains, and next month will extend to back-to-school.

Since they’re making fewer weekly shopping trips, it’s not exactly surprising that the women surveyed by WSL reported making fewer purchases in seven out of 12 categories of merchandise; had single-digit gains in four others — including a slim 1 percent increase in apparel purchases — and had a double-digit increase in only one sector, food, buying 12 percent more than a year ago (see chart). When it came to apparel, 21 percent of the women said they were “buying more” this year, versus last; 59 percent said they were “buying the same,” and 20 percent said they were “buying less.” The net increase of 1 percent in apparel purchases versus 2001 compares with net gains of 8 percent in 2000 and 4 percent in 1998, versus year-ago levels.

An exception to the clamor for convenience, observers noted, can be found among shoppers in their early 20s and younger, a group for whom price and fashion trumps convenience for their selection of apparel stores and items. As people begin to earn more money and become more time pressed, in their mid-to-late 20s, convenience becomes increasingly important. According to Columbus, Ohio-based Retail Forward, by the time consumers hit their mid-50s, it becomes paramount among apparel shoppers. For apparel shoppers aged 25-54, Retail Forward has found convenience ranks third, behind price and style, as an influence on store choice and fashion purchasing. Nonetheless, a third-ranked consideration still wields a powerful influence, pointed out Lois Huff, a Retail Forward vice president who specializes in consumer shopping behavior.

Paradoxically, consumers keep shopping a wider variety of stores even as they make fewer shopping trips, overall. WSL found that the biggest inroads this year have been made by discount supercenters, now shopped by 50 percent of consumers, compared with 32 percent in 2000, and the Internet, now shopped by 24 percent, up from 10 percent just two years ago. The big reason for the supercenters’ gains is their growing accessibility: As of June 30, Wal-Mart alone had 1,140 of them, up from 650 back in September 1999. It was just a few years ago that Wal-Mart made the supercenter its primary growth vehicle — a format that barely existed as recently as 10 years ago

The first-quarter study further revealed 38 percent of U.S. shoppers are visiting an apparel specialty store every three months, up from 32 percent in 2000, while 68 percent are shopping nonapparel specialty stores, in that interval, up from 54 percent two years ago.

An ironic twist to consumers’ broadening retail palette: It’s because they’re not very satisfied with most stores, so they keep seeking new ones. When asked by WSL “how well retailers please them,” they gave the store sector a 67 rating on a scale of 1 to 100. That grade was consistent across demographic segments. “In an age when consumers have so many shopping choices,” the WSL study warned, “a D grade clearly puts many retailers in a precarious position.”