Study: Shoppers concerned about expanding role of data in shopping experience

NEW YORK — Shoppers report they value shopping as an experience and not just as a transaction, and are concerned about the expanding role of data in shaping and limiting this experience, according to "Truth About Shopping" study released Wednesday. Conducted by McCann Truth Central, the research is based on a survey of more than 10,000 people in 11 countries and is supplemented by additional qualitative research.

"We're seeing a variety of behavioral reactions in how shoppers around the world are responding to the growing science of shopping through the expanded use of technology and data," said Laura Simpson, global director at McCann Truth Central. "There are ways in which they are embracing it thoroughly and other ways in which they're doing so warily," she said. "Today's challenge in the retail environment is: how do you keep the art of shopping alive in the age of algorithms? We believe that focusing on the art of shopping is essential to balance the science of shopping." 

Simpson noted that 52% of people said that shopping is too impersonal these days, and they are concerned about the reliance on algorithms to dictate their purchases. As many as 57% worry that they'll discover fewer new things if companies always show them exactly what they're looking for. But this also presents the sellers with new product offerings and merchandising opportunities because 66% of shoppers are looking to be inspired while they are shopping. "They want the very human and personal touch amidst a wave of algorithm-based personalization," Simpson said.

However, this desire for a personal touch does not mean that consumers aren't looking to retailers to "seamlessly blend technology into the physical experience," according to India Wooldridge, VP deputy director at McCann Truth Central "When we look at our data, consumers are open to an even more seamless experience in stores than we see today. They are ready for the smart store of the future," she said. "For instance, 71% would welcome interactive walls that enable you to try on clothes without changing. However, it is important to remember that such technology cannot come at the expense of really getting to know the customer."

She pointed out that mobile is an area where there is a particularly strong need to create more of a sensory experience. Of consumers who have shopped on their mobiles in the past six months, 49% can see themselves shopping exclusively on their mobile in the future, she said, underscoring mobile's important role in the future of shopping. On the other hand, mobiles are currently emerging as a new window-shopping tool, with 70% of consumers saying they think mobiles are good for browsing but not buying. This perception is highest in Mexico and the United States, among the countries studied. 

The study found that 84% of people globally are aware that companies track the websites they visit to recommend products they may like. In the United States, this awareness rose significantly from 69% in 2011 to 87% in 2014. At the same time, shoppers accept this tracking as long as they understand the trade-off: 65% of people said they were willing to share data if they could see the benefit to them. Again, this has been increasing. In the United States, 61% of consumers said they would be willing to share data if they understood the benefit to them, compared with 45% in 2011. 

The over-reliance on the science of shopping does worry the majority of consumers. Overall around the world, 71% worry about the amount of information that online stores know about them. This concern is lowest in the United States (58%) among the countries studied. However, because things are changing at such a rapid pace and people are focused on the technological benefits, there are some contradictory attitudes that emerge with regard to privacy. For example, 59% of people around the world would be open to a store that is able to recognize you when you walk through the door.

Nearly half of people globally say that they can see themselves potentially using fingerprints or retina scans as payment authentication in the future. And nearly a sixth of people around the world say that they can see themselves potentially using payment technology embedded in their body. Among the countries studied, the United States ranks among the lowest in embracing this science-fiction vision.

Additionally, a lot of personal behavior already is changing because of the new world of shopping experience. Shopping at midnight and even mid-dinner have become acceptable. As many as 39% of people globally say that being able to shop in the middle of the night is the biggest emotional benefit of online shopping. And a quarter of people globally believe it is acceptable to excuse yourself from a meeting or dinner in order to go log on to an online flash sale.

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