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Has the separation between consumers versus shoppers gone too far?

Technology & Data

Has the separation between consumers versus shoppers gone too far?


When we have discussions with clients about the need to develop a better understanding of consumers, the discussion often turns to what happens in the store environment. It is not that uncommon for a client to say something along the lines of: Oh that’s the responsibility of our shopper insights team, or the shopper marketing department.’

Research agencies commonly also take a very specialised approach, setting up ‘Shopper Research’ practice divisions to focus on understanding the ‘Shopper’ and help clients uncover ‘Shopper Insights’ as opposed to understanding the ‘Consumer’ and uncovering ‘Consumer Insights’.

This ‘false’ separation of people into either a ‘shopper’ or a ‘consumer’ was provocatively raised by Fern Grant, the senior vice president of strategic planning for Mars at the ‘US SHOP’ Conference.  Grant argues that this false distinction “is getting in our way of understanding who people are as human beings.  She argued: “People who buy stuff don’t view themselves as consumers, or shoppers, and if brands, retailers and agencies did the same they would be better able to leverage the wealth of insights that are now available to more effectively influence behaviour.” Grant made the case that the distinction no longer makes sense, and most probably never did.

As I search longingly at each of the collections on display on the Tiffany’s website, am I a shopper or a consumer? More importantly, does it really matter? The notion of where ‘the store’ begins and ends is becoming increasingly blurred.

As Wittemen and La Rock put it so simply in ‘Brand to Retail’ (The Hub Magazine): “There is no such thing as consumer marketing or shopper marketing.  There’s only good marketing by driving brand equity all the way to the point-of-purchase wherever that may be – at home, away from home, or at retail.”

To grow a brand as a marketer, you need to create consumer desire for the brand and also enable activation of purchase of the brand, as demonstrated in the Ipsos model below.

However, creating desire can of course happen at home, away from home, or at retail.  With online retailing (home and mobile) and the emergence of the pop up store phenomenon, shopper activation can also happen at home, away from home, or at retail.  The point here is, if you separate these aspects into separate disciplines for your business, rather than focus on understanding the increasingly complex and non-linear path-to-purchase that people undertake, you may be missing out on opportunities to maximise brand growth.

Additionally, when it comes to determining innovation opportunities to drive growth, it is important to not just consider how relevant and differentiated the innovation is to the consumer, but how relevant the innovation is in the context of the retail (or retailer) environment and how well does it fit with the retailer brand position?  If the retailer has a strong brand essence, how well is your brand contributing to this?

At the end of the day, what is most important is the development of a full understanding of the motivations and behaviours of people, and how your brand can tap into these motivations and behaviours, wherever they take place.

Gillian O'Sullivan

Gillian O’Sullivan is the managing director of Ipsos Marketing and has 20 years experience in consumer research and marketing. She began her career in brand marketing in consumer healthcare. Having a keen interest in what makes consumers tick, she moved into the consumer research field. Gillian was previously the executive director of consumer research at Nielsen and was also a specialist in services research at AMR. She holds a Bachelor of Economics (Honours) and a Masters of Business (Marketing).

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