shopping behavior and what comes after the recession: part 1

(some research company): “75% of shoppers have changed purchase behavior over past year.


It’s a number like that which creates an onslaught of people suggesting the recession has changed how people will behave after the recession passes (“the new economic world’ some people call it).

It’s a number like that which makes people write things like “permanent changes in consumer behavior.”


It seems that researchers like Booz and Pew have found it  easy to forget that what people say now and what people do in the future are two different things (although Pew Research has been quick to suggest it is difficult to assess future behavior change and Booz qualifies their point of view with a variety of “may”s and “possible”s).

Now people say:

“26 % of consumers say they will plan to continue their changed behavior”

“40% say they will continue with some changes”

Does this mean permanent changed behavior? Nope. No way. Certainly not to the level of the %’s above.

Some? Sure. But generational buying/spending behavior is a huge mega tanker of attitudes/behaviors and turning it or stopping it takes lots of time and effort.

But let’s tackle this first by taking on behavior on an individual level.

In general any behavior change is difficult for a person.  And that is even when they actually want to change behavior (of which living through a recession is not one of those ‘choice’ situations).

It takes real emotional energy to change the behavior patterns of people.

It is a fact that emotion is the energy required to true learning (which affects behavior).

Henri Laborit scientifically proved in his studies on human behavior in the 1960’s that there was a clear communication between learning and emotion. His research reflected without emotion learning was truly impossible. The combination of experience and its accompanying emotion (or reversed – emotional inspiration and accompanying experience) creates an imprint in an individual which becomes the foundation for ongoing behavior. This imprint influences us on an unconscious level from which ongoing behavior is established (the behavior is driven through subconscious rather than driven by conscious actions).

Lucas Donat, owner of a Direct Marketing agency, calls it Advertising 101: “hook consumers emotionally and then give them a reason to validate their reason to purchase”.

Emotion first. Intellect second.

Clotaire Rappaille, author of The Culture Code, says it the simplest: “Emotion is the energy required to learn anything.”


Creating emotion can happen in any number of ways. But creating enough emotion to actually change personal behavior is very difficult. Why? Because the true inspiration to act is rarely self motivated. What people say and what people do are two extremely different things. For example, almost 70% of people say recycling is important but less than 30% of people actually recycle (Iconoculture 2007). An even more demonstrative example was noted by the Global Medical Forum in 2005, “if you look at people 2 years post coronary-artery bypass grafting, 90% have not changed their lifestyle.” (insert “wow” here). Even though they know they have a bad disease and they know they should change their behavior, for whatever reason, they don’t. Intellectually they know the right answer. But they didn’t change.

And I won’t even begin quoting smokers numbers (which reflects an astronomically high number responding they know it is bad for them but are confident the badness doesn’t refer to themselves … “that won’t happen to me”).

This proves not only does there have to be an intellectual trigger to act but a significant amount of emotion needs to be attached to the stimulus-to-act to generate real changes in behavior – established behavior really can only be changed by some emotionally charged action.

Next. Pain as a motivator to change. The reality is that a recession is kind of like a “pain” behavioral change mechanism.  And test after test and program after program has proven pain (as well as rewards which is simply buying a behavior moment) to be ineffective in changing long term behavior (i.e., once pain is removed people will seek to return to previous behavior).

The impact of this recession on ongoing behavior will ultimately dictated by depth & breadth:

1.       How long the pain lasts

2.       How long the fear of the pain returning lasts

(and those two are obviously related)


Regardless of the depth and length of the recession, once the ‘pain’ is removed and ‘fear of return’ subsides as the recession fades most people with established behavior patterns will seek to replicate as many of them as possible once they are able to.


Some behavior will be altered but that is simply a reflection of the fact the pain (the recession) forced someone to try something new. Something maybe they had never tried before. And they actually ‘liked’ the experience as much as what they had done before so they are willing to replace an old comfortable behavior with a new comfortable behavior (I believe Booz Allen said “modified brand and outlet choices are entirely satisfactory to them” as a way of stating this idea).

So why am I so confident about this (beyond the behavioral data)?

Well. The difficulty things like price products and brands associated with “cheap” will run into is what good ole Maslow pointed out years ago – self esteem or status drives ultimately drive behavior.

Brands reflect status. And self esteem.

Yes. Dollar Stores (as well as coupon redemption) have attained a “smart status” in a recession. And to even a higher income group to show they are as smart as everyone else and they are tightening their belts.

But once the heavy recession fades most people will seek smart status in brands more comfortable to their everyday lives (and places like Dollar stores and much of the private label sales increases we have seen will slip slowly into irrelevance in most people’s lives – not all … just much of it).

Further proof?

Everyone should note the information P&G just released (10/28/10) that the sales of their everyday household brands are picking up again as the recession eases slightly.  This is an important household buying behavior sign that the everyday shopper is seeking to revert back to the comfortable brand buying behavior as soon as they can.

Further proof?

Last week the car industry issued a report that “sales are increasing showing promise the recession is receding.”  And where are the highest sales? SUVs for gods sake.  Large cars.  Not small gas efficient models. People are looking to revert back to “bigger is better” and “brands are good” as soon as possible.  That is the tidal wave of consumer buying behavior that is being held back by the recession. Shopper behavior is waiting to step back (mostly) into its old comfortable behavior patterns.


My last point (and frustration) when I read things on this topic is how most people (and research companies) ignore generational shopping behavior pattern learnings from the past.


America went through a depression in the 1930’s (and I could argue two significant recession spikes in the 70’s and 80’s).

We have a depression baby generation still alive and we can see how they act. And we can see how ensuing generations act (which basically ignored depression learnings unless they have had some emotional energy attachment).

Yes. Living through a depression or deep recession will absolutely affect the way consumers will think. But it will progressively affect the way each generation behaves based on the depth of their existing patterns of behavior (older more established versus younger less established).

Think upon this (comparing the 1930’s depression time to 2010 recession period). Oh.  I do have a nifty credible source that supports my generational behavior point of view I just don’t have it with me as I type this.  So.  Here goes:

–          the Silent generation (our current grandparents) were depression youth. They had ‘unfulfilling’ coming of age impacting their behavior as elders. Think of them as the very young ‘post millennial generation and youngest Millenials. They are frugal to an extreme.

–          the optimistic GI generation adults were young adults in the depression who fought a war and fought the depression (and were victorious there also). This is the generation that created the generations of affluence and optimism that led us into the economic heights we experienced (think JFK as key personality). They were savers but “spending builders.”

–          the Lost generation, who fought WW1, and were the flappers generation which led into the free spending before the depression.  It is their optimism and buying behavior which returned to levels of excess after the depression ended.

–          All led by the optimistic elder Missionary “can do” generation (think FDR) during this period.

It is quite a similar to our current situation where something bad/tough ecomomywise happened in an overall optimistic set of generations. And when we look at their behavior patterns as they came out of the depression you see that each generation reverted back to a version of their buying attitude they had prior to the depression (optimistic spending as a general rule).

Why would we believe this current set of generations would act differently?


All the mumbo jumbo out of the way here is how it is going to work out:

–          Silent generation (depending on your age they are our elder parents or grandparents … they are depression youth). They have just relived a version of their painful youth and have revisited youth leanings.  Any loosening of their shopping behavior over the years will tighten up again as we come out of the recession.

–          Boomers. They will be the ones who will most quickly revert back to shopping behavior because they embody the American culture code of “bigger is better” and “quality brands are good” mentality. They also believe that they are entitled to owning what they want and spending how they want. This generation built the booming american can-do economy (in their eyes).

–          genXers. Indulgent and ADD in their youth even in their maturity they will seek to get back to their indulgement & savings swings they are known for.  The pain of not having money will always be in the back of their minds but they will seek opportunities (and justify them) to spend, spend, and … well … spend some more.

–          Older Millennials. This is the tricky group from a shopping behavior standpoint. Let’s say that this group will revert to a “selective instant gratification” shopping behavior. And by selective I mean they may be slow to gain momentum on “more is better” traditional American shopping behavior. Young adults don’t have money anyway so the recession simply deepened a traditional growing up ‘angst’ but hasn’t affected established buying behavior (because they didn’t have enough money to establish a shopping behavior in the first place). But.  Typical of this age group as they gain money they will seek to “trade up” as soon as possible.

–          Young post-Millennials (global generation) and Millenials will grow up as “recession babies” (in a generational cycle they will start exhibiting silent generation behaviors as they grow up) and exhibit more frugal and savings oriented buying behavior. This is truly the group of potential shoppers who received the “emotional imprint” noted earlier. They have seen and encountered the emotional angst of their parents (and the emotion is embedded because they are not fully in control of their lives as children … similar to the silent ‘depression baby generation).

My conclusion?

Phooey on the idea of sweeping permanent shopper behavior changes. (I just wanted to type phooey)

And shame on the large research companies jumping on the recession bandwagon and ignoring past behavioral learnings.

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Written by Bruce