A modern day challenge – predicting consumer behaviour


Are we better off checking the weather forecast?

As we all know, we are experiencing unseasonably pleasant weather – I shall refrain from making any disparaging remarks associated with the temperatures of late; for all those who do fear not winter will be along all too soon! And with this in mind availability, or rather lack of, has become front of mind once more as grocers in particular grapple with huge spikes in demand.

On our regular shopping trips (for those of us who still prefer to personally choose our meat and fresh) we have grown accustomed to being greeted by fully stocked shelves no matter what the external factors. Currently the weather is driving huge demand for certain products – are there any bbq tongs available in this country? And that once more brings the spotlight onto our favoured brands and our relationship with them. How many of us winced on hearing the news that one particular supermarket has raised the price of bottled water as demand has soared over the last few weeks?

But not only that, as we near the end of the month and July rolls seamlessly into August, perhaps this will not only go down as one of the driest ever July’s but one of the poorest for availability.

Weather has long played such a significant part in governing consumer behaviour and one could argue that it is the single most powerful influence on that behaviour. Also that it is likely to be extremely acute in this country where one extreme – whether it be sun or snow – can trigger their own extremes in buying behaviour whether it be for sun cream, bottled water, gloves, plastic sledges or snow shovels.  I am convinced that much of this is also driven by the fact that the weather in the UK is so unpredictable and that a) we are not geared for extremes as they come along so unpredictably  and b) when they do we try to take maximum advantage knowing that the opportunity will not present itself for many a while to come. Given these conditions, is it any wonder that for many years, predicting consumer buying behaviour has been almost the sole pre-occupation of many retail departments up and down the country.

And the irony is that whilst there is now more data held on sales, footfall, buying trends etc etc than ever before, predicting behaviour and retaining customer loyalty is harder than ever before. It is a modern day Parsifal – the Holy Grail – which remains a constant and shows no signs of abating.  But why?

Customers are extremely fickle and are showing signs of becoming ever more so. The current weather has had a significant impact but it goes much deeper than that. Post austerity (well we did grow by 0.6% last quarter) UK is a very different place to the heady days of 2008 and earlier. More and more we will look after number 1, shop around, visit demographically non-traditional stores, go without but equally make our luxury purchases. “I know this is the new normal but I’m going to still enjoy myself” seems to be the frame of mind. And what type of behaviour and expectation does this generate? Woe betide our favoured brands if they do not predict how we are going to feel at any given time. Woe betide them if they do not keep pace, if not ahead of our expectations. Because if they don’t there is no 2nd chance; we have practically zero loyalty and are becoming fearless in our shopping behaviour. Overlay this promiscuous behaviour with such an unpredictable climate and the challenge for retail today becomes all too clear.


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