Carolyn White
Carolyn White

A ‘senseless’ shopping experience

by Carolyn White. How an absenteeism of the senses during the shopping experience and the impact of distance-based retail measures has robbed the consumer of the pleasure of shopping.

by Carolyn White. How an absenteeism of the senses during the shopping experience and the impact of distance-based retail measures has robbed the consumer of the pleasure of shopping.

It’s a really interesting time to be in retail. Even pre-COVID-19, marketers were eagerly ramping up novel marketing efforts with better data analysis to package new ways that better experiences can be offered up to shoppers; how expectations can be exceeded; how to drive deeper value; and more importantly, how to win and keep shoppers’ loyalty for life.

I started to think back to my own recent experiences to store: first the tentative venture for a top up grocery shop across the road; and then under lockdown level 4, a ‘bolder’ attempt for clothing essentials shopping. To be frank, both experiences were distant, hurried, forgetful (even with a list!), and for the first time, unpleasant.

In all fairness, this really had nothing to do with the actual stores and their products being sold, but rather how I felt being in the store, masked and not having my full “visual set of feelings” when going shopping. While a fairly obvious notion of a mask being a barrier in preventing the spread of the virus, it also prevents full engagement with one’s senses when shopping. Shopping has taken a new and very unfamiliar feeling for me personally – fear and loathing.

An interesting study #Selfieforscience recently launched on measuring the potential psychological effects of wearing a mask, aims to understand the negative effects a mask may have on communication and how to mitigate this. While the research and findings are yet to be concluded and shared, it got me thinking not just about the effects on shopping from a contactless and masked safety measure and distancing aspect; but to try and see if there were any insights on how ‘covered behaviour shopping’ affects purchasing and purchasing ‘need states’.

Some more personally observed dissociative feelings that are incredibly important in defining the shopper experience: self-identity, confidence, full sensory engagement, accompanied shopping choices, non-verbal cues; and more importantly, a decline in the sensorial aspects of the shopping experiences.

For a lot of FMCG brands that rely heavily on shopper emotions and sensorial experiences, this is an incredibly difficult time to get noticed and to be seen for the right reasons. Even if we take out of the equation the financial burden consumers are facing; no one is thinking about tasty harvest sampling table stations, fragrance engagement misters, a promoter to tempt you to buy more than you planned, or a freebie hand-out on your way out the store.

With the explosion of contactless retail solutions, hygiene and heightened safety measures throughout a store; coupled with a deeper focus from retailers on “buying essentials”, this has trained us to behave and move in the store differently, perhaps a bit more consciously. If we look at shopped mindsets already compartmentalised for us (essentials vs non-essentials) what could some potential scenario’s look like for sensorial categories and brands, and what are some alternative solutions that can offer value to shoppers?

  1. Link new cross category experiences: Take for example Ikea, sharing innovative recipe guides for making their famous Ikea meatballs at home, which mirrors the instructions for assembling flat-pack furniture. You don’t automatically think of Ikea and food in the same category, but the experience and new relevant experience value is what connects shoppers mentally when physical options are not available.
  2. Blend human and physical navigation aids for richer immersive experiences: The rise of virtual shopping assistants and sales ambassadors online will provide even more opportunities to engage even at store level with sight and hearing values combined. Where an in-person experience is diminished, brands can elevate digital product solution expertise at shelf, and share these inspirations to shoppers in real-time. In traditional taste testing’s for example, the experience can be replicated through visual demonstrations and then delivery of rewards on an experience at home. If shoppers are spending less time in stores, brands need to offer new services that can easily be accessed prior to shopping for the items.
  3. Understand the power of a connected need state: Brands can revisit straight-selling from product levels to rather selling better need states. Shoppers are not often simply looking for a new skincare brand, but instead may be looking for a new “change-up routine” that combines goals of routines with multiple usage benefits. If a barrier like time, safety and hygiene exist in a new need state, brands can look to bringing products together and offering a “time saving essential hygiene kit”, for example. Better yet, if new values (convenience, simplicity and discovery) are better fit with a partner brand, leverage collaborations to add a new experience to the mix.
  4. Deepen value in digital communications in physical spaces: It’s important for brands using new initiatives to focus on the efficiency of shopper connections and build solutions with companies which focus on the end-to-end user experience as opposed to just digital fulfilment. I recently came across a new shopping mall app, ‘Shop Safe’, which provides shoppers with a view of when and where it’s safest to do your next shopping trip to reduce exposure to crowded spaces. This can redefine a new sensory experience for shoppers whereby it puts them back into control, while still getting the products they need and adding considered value.
  5. Change the shopper experience role and embrace agility: In many global supermarket chains, they have eliminated the need to sign for deliveries or grocery parking lot pickups during the crisis, by setting up curbside collect programs. A sense of “novelty” in how the product is used and consumed can equate to a sensorial experience when delivered with additional rewards. In many cases, consumers will be more likely to insist that these changes remain in place even after the crisis passes. It sounds so easy, but in the absence of the ability to engage in traditional sensorial experiences, simplicity now always wins for decision-making, even in categories that have always prided themselves on full sensory immersions.

The ability to find a way to propel meaningful cross category stories and access your shopper directly where possible, will define new growth territories in adapting to new shopper behaviour. By elevating the levels of information control, first to engage conversations and better immersive experiences, brands can stay relevant to shoppers despite the barriers in losing an immediate tactile experience to convert.

Do I believe that sensorial experiences will be on the back burner for the next 12 months – this largely depends on the view of what a new sensory experience has to offer. What has value for a specific place and time may not anymore -our world is markedly different. The reality is physical experiences will never be fully replaced — as people are freed from isolation and many will get back to shopping in their habitual ways as they did pre-pandemic. Marketers who craft more intuitive solutions and creative interactions in online and physical environments are geared to win longer-term.


Carolyn White, is a shopper marketing strategist. She is passionate about connecting great brands with innovative consumer-shopper solutions by understanding the value that brands present in shoppers’ lives. White has 14 years advertising agency through-the-line experience, specialising in shopper and retail marketing. She has headed up shopper marketing over the last eight years and her experience in the industry ranges from working on blue-chip clients such as Procter and Gamble, Nestle, Novartis, Cipla, Colgate-Palmolive, PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz Brands, Steers, MTN, LG, Adcock Ingram, Aspen Brands.

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