Does the new normal mean the end of front-end impulse?

The front end of the store has long been a competitive area, focused on organizing and designing products to capture attention and convert to purchase, rising above all necessary distractions in this zone. Considerable time and effort has been dedicated to ensuring that this key impulse zone is as appealing as possible to shoppers . . . . then came the pandemic.

So, what happens now? Is front-end impulse gone forever? As you can probably guess, the answer is no, but there are key elements that need to change in order for it to be successful.

What do shoppers say?

In a recent Explorer research survey, 62% of shoppers either somewhat or strongly agree that it is now important for the store to take extra safety precautions in the checkout area, with 69% of shoppers agreeing that their store has taken enough precautions to deal with COVID-19 (T2B). Safety is paramount, meaning that we should feel good about this number. However, 46% of shoppers say that it is currently stressful shopping at the checkout area (T2B). This additional stress and attention to the surroundings has resulted in 41% of shoppers stating that their purchases in the checkout area have decreased during COVID-19 (T2B), and 48% of shoppers say that the reason their checkout purchasing patterns have changed is simply because they want to spend as little time in the store as possible.

That’s a lot of stats, but the point is that things have changed, and shoppers are not purchasing from the front end as much as they used to. This is simply driven by wanting to stay safe and, therefore, actively spending less time in store.

Furthermore, when asked, only 34% of shoppers say that their purchases in the checkout area will return to pre-COVID patterns. In fact, 74% of respondents say that, with the impact of COVID-19, there is a need for retailers to rethink how they organize the checkout area of their stores. 

So, what should we do?

Simply put, we need to listen to shoppers, and come up with a better way to facilitate front end shopping. The desire for these products hasn’t changed, but new barriers have been introduced, and this is our opportunity to rethink and redesign the future.

E-commerce is an obvious channel to shift some focus to right now, but it clearly has its barriers, particularly in relation to more impulsive categories. In traditional brick and mortar, the impulse shopping occasion and the consumption occasion occur fairly close together. In other words, I buy product x with the intention of consuming it soon thereafter.

When in an online scenario, the impulse shopping occasion can still happen, even though some time will necessarily have to pass before the consumption occasion can occur (the product needs to be shipped). This means that, in an e-commerce scenario, we need to be creative with the shopping occasion. This can include better occasion identification based on the basket, offering an ideal addition to the overall planned consumption occasion. This is one example only, but the point is that in this online scenario, we are adapting ‘impulse’ to be more focused on impulse shopping, with the intent of a future (more planned) consumption occasion.

In traditional stores, the challenge is simply to focus on delivering a safer experience, more suitable for today’s environment. This can be achieved by testing out new checkout concepts, which can be as simple as reorganizing the area, or as complex as new dispensing technology at the checkout. The right answer will depend on the shopping environment, but the retailers and manufacturers that get ahead of this testing and implementation the soonest will be the ones best positioned for growth, moving forward.

So, now is the time. Crazy front-end ideas can and should be tested because, who knows, maybe some of those ideas that didn’t work in the past could work very well now. And if you have these ideas, we would be happy to test them with you.

Mike Moussallem is a partner at Explorer Research. He has more than 15 years of experience in quantitative and qualitative research, shopper marketing, and category management. He has held positions at TNS, Kraft, PepsiCo, and Nielsen. Prior to joining Explorer, he led the Retail and Shopper Insights practice and team for TNS in Canada. Before TNS, Moussallem also led the Shopper Insights team for Kraft Canada, spanning across all sectors and customers

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