OPINION12 November 2009

Defining trust in an age of sceptical consumerism


Redundancies, pay cuts and big-name retailers hitting the wall – this recession has placed consumers well and truly outside their comfort zones. With all this upheaval, trust is now more important than ever in consumer decision-making, says Shoppercentric managing director Danielle Pinnington. But has the nature of trust changed with the times?

In recent work with clients we have been hearing increasing talk about trust, and whether trust – in brands and in retailers – has been affected by events over the last 12 months. This got us thinking about what trust means to shoppers: what are they thinking about when deciding whether or not a brand or retailer is trustworthy? And what role does this have in their decision-making?

Let’s be clear, shoppers don’t spontaneously talk about trust as a purchase decision factor in its own right. Yet they recognise that trust is playing a role in their decisions.

“Trust is one of those big words, isn’t it?” said one respondent. “I suppose when I talk about ‘their quality’ or ‘their service’ what I mean is that I trust them to always offer quality. But I would never think of it like that normally.”

Changes we have all faced over the last year have increased the role of trust in day to day purchase decisions, so doesn’t it stand to reason that if shoppers are facing new challenges they are going to turn to companies they trust when seeking to meet these new challenges?

Redundancies, pay cuts and reductions in working hours mean consumers have less money coming in. Shoppers therefore have had to review store choices. A number of high street brands have gone to the wall so some consumers have found themselves having to consider new stores to fit smaller budgets. Shoppers have been forced out of their comfort zones by market conditions.

The recession has also given rise to changes in-store as well and we’ve seen a heavier reliance on promotions as a value mechanic. Own labels are also marketing themselves very aggressively in-store and the search for value means shoppers are being more experimental. Branded goods have to justify any price premium through tangible benefits.

What we’re observing is a fundamental shift in shopper attitudes, from the ‘have it all’ of the past to ‘what do I really need’. And this is a long-term shift to a more prudent way of managing our lives. Prudence is all about how we consume but also where we choose to shop and what we choose to buy. If shoppers are becoming more prudent then their decisions will be more deliberate. There is a real sense from shoppers that they are increasingly focusing on a retailer’s actions rather than their talk. If the experience in-store or at the fixture fails to meet the shopper’s needs and expectations then the opportunity to build trust is likely to be lost.

“What we’re observing is a fundamental shift in shopper attitudes, from the ‘have it all’ of the past to ‘what do I really need’. And this is a long-term shift to a more prudent way of managing our lives.”

The plethora of promotions offers us a clear example of how shoppers are challenging retailers’ and brands’ actions in-store and searching for greater trust. Whereas 18 months ago shoppers would hardly glance at the details of a multi-buy because they were so focused on getting a bargain, now they are checking and comparing the details before making a purchase, and worryingly they are finding that retailers and brands are coming up short on regular occasions.

As an example, one respondent we spoke to explained how  they had come across a Becks beer promotion for an 18-bottle pack – yet it turned out that “three boxes of six bottles worked out cheaper”. “You have to keep your wits about you these days,” said the respondent.

Shoppers are also increasingly able to differentiate between two levels of trust: ‘corporate integrity’, which encompasses corporate responsibility, staff/supplier treatment, transparency, consistency and heritage; and secondly ‘tangible delivery’ – a business’s ability to meet a shopper’s individual needs and expectations during the purchase process.

The difference is summarised by this shopper quote: “I wouldn’t trust the ethics of any of the petrol companies as far as I could throw them, but I choose to fill up at Esso because they have the cheapest prices locally – I trust them to do that, they’ve been the cheapest around for some time now.”

Based on what we’ve heard from shoppers, businesses who engage with shoppers every day need to be much more aware of the need to deliver trust at the point of purchase. When shoppers’ faith in the status quo has been challenged as fundamentally as it has in the last 12 months they are bound to re-evaluate the decisions they make, and who they are going to trust to help them during these difficult times.

A retailer or brand that is serious about earning trust first has to understand the needs and expectations of the shopper in their store or category in order to ensure the in-store experience is a match. It is then the ability of the business to take those learnings and use them to deliver a winning experience in-store that will enhance trust for the benefit of the brand in the long term. That winning experience may be a credible promotion that suits today’s prudence, like the ’Dine in for £10’ offer from Marks & Spencer, or the launch of a low-price range that ensures budget-constrained shoppers can still use the same stores. Alternatively it could be a brand using in-store marketing to highlight money off a leisure event that supports ‘staycation’ families.

All in all, it’s about making a real connection in order to engage the shopper, to generate trust and therefore build loyalty.

Shoppercentric conducted a series of qualitative focus groups, shopper and industry expert depth interviews, and 1,009 online interviews among shoppers. Interviews conducted in August 2009.