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Published October 17th 2018

Consumer Trends in the Retail Industry: The Power of the Disgruntled Consumer

From dealing with boycotts and burning shoes to traditional customer care complaints, the retail industry is at the mercy of disgruntled customers

Retail is one of the most interesting and flexible markets to study.

To satisfy desires for the convenience that digital experiences e-commerce and holidays like Cyber Monday bring, traditional retailers are investing more in their websites, digital advertising, and online points-of-sale than ever before.

And to tap into a previously underserved customer base for their brands, “e-tailers” or digitally native retail brands are breaking into the brick-and-mortar scene.

(The term “e-tailer” sounds so weird in my ears, but I imagine my Baby Boomer mother didn’t think the term “e-mail” would stick, so maybe I’m just becoming an old fart).

Especially as digital customer care and CSR become focal points for retailers, online forums and social media are now one of the most powerful tools for consumers.

Brands can’t see a more honest snapshot of consumer trends than by looking at online conversations.

To understand the retail landscape and how it fits into the global market, we’ve looked at growing consumer trends in retail and twelve other industries, from airlines to TV networks.

This global research revealed key consumer trends in the retail industry.

Vocal customers, especially unhappy customers, are shaping conversations around brands and by aggregating that conversation we can pull out key themes.

Case in point: The below word cloud is constructed of millions of retail conversations and reveals the most common topics of negative conversation.

When zooming into the biggest pain-points for retail customers this year, two key consumer trends surfaced: The unwavering need for great customer experience, and the increasingly political customer.

The unwavering need for exceptional human experiences

Despite what everyone was guessing in 2010, brick-and-mortar stores still play a major role in the modern retail experience. Walmart’s revenue, for instance, has grown year over year since 2014.

And, according to JLL as quoted in Business Insider, the US is likely to see nearly a thousand new brick-and-mortar stores open from originally digital retailers like Amazon and Warby Parker in the next five years.

Even in the case where a customer has a nearly entirely digital experience, from advertising to the point of sale, if they’re unhappy with a purchase they’ll likely need to speak to a person before having her problem solved.

What disrupted the retail industry was not technology specifically, but how digital tools helped some companies deliver exceptional experiences.

“Customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator by the year 2020.”

-Walker consulting firm

Both online and offline, customers are demanding exceptional experiences from retailers, so it’s unsurprising to see so many phrases related to customer experience among the most popular topics in negative conversations.

These drivers of negative conversation represent both traditional retail issues — with customer care being mentioned in various ways — as well as more recent retail issues like “next-day delivery.”

But taking another look at that word cloud and examining retail in 2018, another clear trend is revealed.

The increasingly political consumer

It’s no secret that the social climate across the world is shaping and disrupting customer relationships with brands every day.

Boycotts have always been used to make political and social statements in order to hold companies, politicians, and organizations accountable. Social media has added a new dimension to the decades-old act of defiance.

Especially in the US, social media is an extremely powerful social and financial weapon where like-minded groups are most mobilized. Opposing opinions are continually battling it out, and brands can choose to speak up when and if they decide to enter a controversial discussion.

Social media has spearheaded this era of politically-motivated consumers, and customers are influencing retailers to take action. Many retail brands, like Dick’s Sporting Goods (below), have chosen to take actions that reflect their brand’s perspective.

Looking at Dicks’ Q1 sales, it seems as if the brand’s stance also reflected their customers’ perspective.

After the time of this research, another retail brand made headlines for taking a stand. In September, Nike launched an ad campaign with activist and former American footballer Colin Kaepernick. And, in protest, some long-time Nike consumers began burning their purchased shoes in defiance. Whether this campaign will have a long term impact on Nike’s sales positively or negatively is yet to be seen.

While it’s still unclear how big of a threat politics will play in the long game for the retail industry, at the moment consumers seem more vocal than ever in their expectations for brands to align with their own preferences.

The bigger landscape

Retailers are not the only organizations affected by these two trends. For instance, politically-driven conversations and boycotts on every side of the aisle have surfaced among customer bases for airlines, telecom companies, and hotel brands this year.

How your brand fits into the lives of your customers requires a full view of the consumer trends impacting you, your industry, and the happenings of other industry.

Learn more about the consumer trends of the retail industry and twelve other industries by accessing the exclusive report below.

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