Shoppers today are far less likely to stay loyal to a specific brand. Instead, they’re driven by a desire to try new brands, new products, and new categories every time they want to make a purchase. They’re in a new state of mind where shoppers prefer to explore and are primed to want to go on the hunt. My company’s Shopper Influence research looked at recent purchasers across six product and service categories and found that about half of shoppers began their recent purchase journey with no brand in mind.

Think about that. Half of shoppers identified a need or desire but didn’t attach a brand to it at the start. That doesn’t point to a population dearly enamored with the brand; what it shows is that brand loyalty is giving way to a new paradigm: shopper promiscuity.

Shoppers aren’t just switching brands because of a promotion or coupon. They’re not just buying a different brand because the preferred one was out of stock. This even goes beyond having two or three brands in the consideration set. For half of shoppers, there are zero brands in the consideration set at the beginning. That’s a reality that retailers and brands need to adjust to.

What Fueled the Rise of Shopper Promiscuity?

So how did we get here? This mental and behavioral shift is an evolution brought by powerful forces: economics, social change, technology, category disruption, and more. Consider how the world has changed for shoppers in the past 25 years: the rise of the internet and e-commerce, the 2008 global recession, the political upheaval around the world in the 2010s, and then the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research points to a meaningful, lasting change in the way people shop.

The economic changes are perhaps most profound. E-commerce and widespread internet adoption have given shoppers exponentially more choice in products. Being able to access more options than could realistically be considered rather than accepting the curated selection at a few favored stores in the local mall has reprogrammed shoppers.

We’ve also seen such disruption across categories. From online consumer-to-consumer marketplaces like Craigslist, eBay, and Facebook Marketplace to direct-to-consumer companies like Harry’s and Warby Parker, and even subscription-based models like Rent the Runway and Blue Apron, shoppers don’t default to going into a retail environment — physical or otherwise — to get what they want.

And then there’s the social and political aspect. Societal trust in institutions has eroded since the ’90s in a way that primes people to put less value in institutions or established brands and turn more to something new in hopes that it will be better in some way. The best thing retailers can do to counteract that is to deliver products and experiences that are valued, precisely as advertised, and lasting.

How Retailers Can Adapt and Thrive

These headwinds aren’t insurmountable for retailers. Consider the following if you’re looking at your operation and how it handles the new reality:

  1. In an era of constant acquisition, don’t rely on return customers and loyalty programs to reliably pad the bottom line. Pursue even your most ardent promoters as though they’re a new conversion and tailor your messaging to that end.
  2. Lower barriers to purchase. Our research shows that the top impediments that keep shoppers out of your column are price, whether a product is a good deal for the quality, lack of brand familiarity, and product unavailability. Are you struggling to keep items in stock in the face of supply chain issues? Are shoppers uncertain about a product’s quality? Are you promoting discounts regularly enough to bring shoppers in?
  3. Examine unexplored channels and touchpoints to identify marketing channels you may not be leveraging to their full potential. Whether that’s the right social media message or direct mail, there are always tweaks to make that will help you reach shoppers at the right time.
  4. Incentivize the completion of customer satisfaction surveys to get more of your customers to tell you what’s really working with your operation — and what isn’t. Be sure these are structured from the shopper’s point of view so the data accurately reflects their experiences.
  5. Do your research and adapt with the findings. Shoppers are continuously changing and adapting to new technologies and trends. Your retail organization should be just as agile as they are to stay in sync and drive growth.

The changing ways in which people shop have demanded a lot from retailers over the past 20 years. There’s no reason to say that the change will slow down. Therefore, successful organizations will be the ones that think and act quickly, always keeping a pulse on the factors and motivations that get shoppers to say “yes.”