This year's Inmar Forum brought a host of top speakers to Winston-Salem, including Andreas Weigend (formerly the chief data scientist at Amazon), Peter Fader from the Wharton School, John Phillips with PepsiCo, Matt Gymer of Novant Health and many, many others. But, as insightful and informative as these and the other expert presenters were, the most impactful sharing at the conference may have come from the eight "everyday folks" who participated in a panel discussion exploring shopper attitudes toward promotions, the in-store experience and the retailers and brands trying to engage with them.
The collective commentary from the panelists was candid, at times colorful and very, very telling. Here are some the key messages we heard from this diverse group of consumers:
Technology is critical to shoppers' efforts, but traditional sources have not been abandoned.
The panel members, who ranged in age from 19 to 71, all spoke to their use of the internet to search for product information and availability, make price comparisons and find coupons and other savings opportunities. A multi-source search for savings was common practice among the Forum panelists who spoke of using retailer and manufacturer websites, apps and coupon blogs when looking for coupons and discount opportunities. However, while smartphones and apps where the preference of some, newspapers, Sunday circulars and direct mail were all acknowledged as having real value and a definite place in the pre-trip planning process.
Engagement must be relevant, genuinely facilitate the shopping effort and deliver real value.
The collective message from this group of cost-conscious, self-described "savvy shoppers" was that outreach from marketers had to align with their demonstrated wants and needs. Random or "hard sell" techniques were not effective in moving them to trial or purchase. If they had an interest, the panelists would voluntarily engage with a retailer or brand — but, with the expectation that the "return engagement" would deliver information and offers of immediate, obvious value.
Social media also plays a part in the panelists' shopping experience, as several in the group expressed a willingness to "like" a product or brand on Facebook in order to receive promotions. Twitter posts were also identified as influential, but more so when broadcast as informative enticements rather than direct advertisements.
Quality customer service trumps convenience in building shopper loyalty and driving repeat business.
Whatever their particular level of engagement, the panelists were consistent in their expectations of quality service -- both in-store and online. Ready availability of product information, easily accessible and personally delivered offers, direct and prompt customer service, assurance of product quality and ease of return where all cited as reasons the panelists remained loyal to both retailers and brands.
The panelists also said that they would travel further to those retailers who provided superior customer service, especially when it came to retail pharmacy. Those panelists speaking to their experience in this area voiced that personal attention, close consultation with the pharmacist and the availability of information relative to medication and patient care were the primary decision drivers — having much greater influence than either cost or convenience.
While the panel did not comprise a scientific sampling, the comments from the group did represent, as our Chairman and CEO David Mounts said, "first-person verification" of previous research by Inmar Analytics showing increased use of technology by shoppers along the path to purchase as well as the desire among shoppers for more personal, relevant engagement from retailers (grocery stores, pharmacies and mass merchandisers) and brands (both food and non-food CPGs).
Hearing directly from end-users has always been, for me, a particularly powerful information-gathering experience. It's a reminder that there is always something more to be learned from, and about, the customer. I'd be interested to know your response to what we heard from the panelists and invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.