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The Rise of Shopper Promiscuity Calls For a New Approach to Market Research and Marketing

Today’s shoppers are operating in a completely unrestrained informational environment, full of seemingly endless places to get input during the purchase journey. They aren’t bound by traditional constraints, and are gathering data far and wide to inform decisions with behaviors that no longer follow any established marketing models. We call this Shopper Promiscuity, with a propensity toward curiosity, experimentation, and risk-taking. Brand loyalty is fading fast as shoppers constantly examine new options and are more open to new brands, new distribution channels and new innovations.

What this means is that consumers aren’t following the pathways on which our research and marketing models have been based for decades. They are instead focused on their own needs and looking for products and services that meet those needs. That’s not to say they are taking the decision to buy more lightly. Shoppers themselves have become researchers as well, as they consult multiple sources of information before pulling out their pocketbooks. Those sources vary in the level of influence they have over the individual’s final purchase decision.

Information-Gathering Varies Widely by Category

It is important to note that the sources consulted, their overall influence, and the level of Shopper Promiscuity vary widely based on the product or service category. For example, soda drinkers remain extremely loyal to their beverage of choice, with some research tracking brand loyalty at over 95% in this category that continues to buck the trend.

But in our own research, we uncovered some interesting behavioral data from a national study of 6,000 individuals who were recent purchasers across six product categories. Both the information-gathering and the decision-making processes ran the gamut: CPG purchasers typically make decisions within one day after consulting a few trusted sources, while home fitness equipment purchasers consult an average of 24 different sources across weeks of research. The right consumer insights gleaned from the right individuals is critical in advising brands on exactly where they can most effectively intersect with their audiences during the purchase journey.

It’s important to note that all consumer research is not created equal. Our research is grounded in a new methodology that we call “shopper influence.” It not only covers the sources consulted, but also just how influential those sources were among audiences. From social media to peer reviews, and from on-shelf displays to more traditional advertising, it is critical that brands understand which messaging, on which platform, is resonating with their key consumer groups. And we look at recent purchasers who tell us what they actually did and how it worked for them, not purchase intenders who are answering hypothetical questions about what they might do without knowing all of the specifics.

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Shopper Promiscuity is Here to Stay

This revelation about a new kind of shopper is nothing new. We’ve seen the trend toward Shopper Promiscuity building for years in our own research, starting with our work on Google’s Zero Moment of Truth more than a decade ago. Since then, we’ve seen these behaviors increase exponentially, as shoppers take advantage of the huge number of choices available to them. They’re doing their own research, with our study indicating that 76% of shoppers want to be as informed as possible when making a purchase decision. In many categories, brand is one of their last considerations.

The Value of Online Retail Sources Varies by Category

While shoppers do turn to online retail sources for information about their purchases, the degree to which they do so, and the degree to which they find those sources to be influential to the final purchase decision, varies from category to category. Our research found that shoppers turned to online retail sources most for higher-consideration purchases like home furniture, home fitness equipment or self-improvement subscriptions like Masterclass. A whopping 84% of home fitness equipment shoppers said they consulted online retail sources on the purchase journey, with 57% saying that the information they found was influential. A CPG product like household cleaning supplies didn’t see nearly the same levels of usage and influence.

The bottom line is that these changes in behavior are changing the game for marketers and market researchers. We need to start looking to the consumer to find out who they are, what they need, what matters to them, and how they are going to solve the “problem” at hand. Market research needs to pivot in order to find out exactly where audience members are turning for information — information that’s actually influencing purchases — and direct dollars, attention and focus in those places. Reframing the conversation away from the brand itself and instead focusing on the consumer is essential.

Editor’s Note: Alter Agents CEO Rebecca Brooks will discuss how brands can thrive in the age of Shopper Promiscuity in her session at the Internet Retailer Conference & Expo, May 10-12 in Chicago, titled Understanding (and Responding) to Shopper Promiscuity: Tips and Takeaways for Marketers and CX Leads. Join us!


Rebecca Brooks is an entrepreneur, columnist, and mother with 20 years’ experience in the market research industry. As Founder and CEO of full-service market research consultancy Alter Agents, she feeds her inherent curiosity by uncovering the complicated paths today’s consumers take to help clients make better decisions every day. Brooks’ passion for creating a rich, energized, and balanced work environment — while delivering exceptional quality and value — has created a true culture of collaboration at her company. She is co-author of the upcoming shopper marketing book, “Influencing Shopper Decisions,” to be published by Kogan Page in April 2022. Brooks holds a B.A. in Anthropology from the College of William & Mary.

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