In Their Shoes

Try walking a mile as a shopper who is female, Hispanic or of a different generation.

By  Linda Abu-Shalback Zid, Senior Editor

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You are 90 years old. Maybe you don’t get around as well as you used to. Or perhaps your eyesight isn’t quite what it once was. For such a person, a convenience store can be a pretty intimidating place.

Retail consultant Michael Sansolo recently shopped with a relative that age who was facing those difficulties. “You can’t imagine what a store becomes to somebody whose vision has been diminished that much,” he says.

When faced with a multitude of coffee brands, for example, “she was actually making choices that weren’t the ones she wanted, but the ones she could pick up by vision.”

Sansolo cautions that the elderly face other challenges, such as confusing shelf layouts and products too low or too high for them to reach.

And seniors aren’t the only generation that might require customization at the c-store level. “As marketers and as employers, we’re dealing with more generations being in play at the same time than has ever happened before,” he says, attributing the phenomenon partially to longevity. “The bottom line is every generation presents a challenge.”

Two of those generations are expected to make up more than half of the population by 2015, according to a forecast from market research specialists The NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y. Baby boomers (ages 51 to 69) will account for 23.9% (74 million), and the “largest age cohort” will be millennials (ages 19 to 37) at 26.8% (83 million) of the 2015 population.

Baby Boomers: Among the intricacies of this group is that they have come to expect certain consistencies when shopping. “They want to know that the item that’s in aisle three is going to be where it was, because they’re used to getting it that way,” Sansolo says.

They also might not understand the choices of their younger counterparts. Sansolo, a baby boomer himself, recalls the days when he was nagged into getting a haircut and his musical tastes were considered “weird, loud music” that people didn’t understand. “Like every generation, what baby boomers are doing right now is what their parents did to them quite a while ago. They’re looking at the younger generation, and saying, ‘I don’t get these kids. They look weird, they feel entitled to everything and the way they dress is weird.’ ”

Millennials: “The argument I put forth is they’re not weird, not less, just different,” says Sansolo. “This new generation is coming from the differences of their experience.”

For example, while older adults might look at millennials as “entitled,” Sansolo says they actually have grown up with terrorism, presidents who have admitted to lying, a more divorce-ridden society and the biggest recession in the United States in 80 years.

They do have some benefits, however, such as an inherent understanding of technology. “As shoppers, they’re very comfortable walking into a store with a smartphone and having a river of information flow into the palm of their hands,” he says. Therefore, they can instantly look up reviews of products and services to enhance their shopping experience. Another difference is that the younger shopper hasn’t fallen into a regimented pattern yet. So Sansolo asks, “How does a store find a way to be exciting and interesting to the younger shopper at the same time it’s providing a measure of consistency and reliability to the elder?”

‘Out of Their Little Box’ 

Fortunately, due to the age span of c-store personnel, retailers are at an advantage when it comes to understanding multiple generations. “So we have to talk to those people, learn from those people—and it actually makes us better retailers at the end of the day,” Sansolo says.

One way for retailers to find out about other generations is to take the opportunity to “get out of their little box” with those employees. People tend to spend time with others in their age groups, Sansolo says, but he suggests taking an employee of a different age group to lunch to “get sense of what’s going on in their world.”

 “It’s somewhat shocking, but it’s usually illuminating,” he says.

Technology is one topic that should be discussed, as a way of understanding different user experiences: “You and I could live next door to each other and live in entirely different worlds with the cable stations and blogs we look at online. We no longer live in an age of mass media; we live in niche.”

By discussing such topics with others, he says, “You discover remarkable things, because you can only look at the world through your eyes and your experiences.”

For example, from a conversation with his own daughter, in her 20s and living in the Washington, D.C., area, he learned that she keeps an eye on Twitter to see where certain lunch trucks will be. “How many convenience-store retailers, supermarket retailers or drug-store retailers could you name who on a regular basis tweet about a special or about a product?” he says. “My daughter, that age group, is driving lunch decisions based on what they’re seeing on Twitter.”

Another way to understand generations is to do a search on TV ratings on Google, and put promotions together around popular TV shows for the groups you are trying to target. “What an opportunity to say you might have seen this on ‘Top Chef,’ ” he says. “It helps you become a little more relevant to shoppers.”

Hispanic Habits

Now let’s say you’re a Hispanic consumer.

Spanish signage and/or a Spanish speaking clerk are nice touches, but the c-store experience should go beyond that to make you a regular customer.

“It used to seem very simple to people: All they had to do was advertise in Spanish, and that took care of the Hispanic bucket, that little box they had checked,” says Carlos Garcia, senior vice president of Knowledge Networks, Palo Alto, Calif. But with Hispanics overindexing on “all things convenience store” (upwards of 20% of the total volume of store sales, Garcia estimates) and now accounting for 17% of the population, retailers must take a closer look.

For one thing, more U.S. Hispanic demographic growth is coming from birth than immigration. Thirty-three percent of children enrolled in preschool and kindergarten are now Latino, Garcia says. And those children are no longer growing up in a “monolingual Spanish environment.”

“They’re going to be growing up biculturally and bilingually, and the whole environment is in a pretty dynamic paradigm shift,” he says. The Hispanic community amid a retailer’s stores could also be made up of distinctive cultures, such as Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban or Dominican.

“Different foods will be nostalgic to them, traditional to them,” Garcia says. “It doesn’t mean that they’re going to be static and always stuck in tradition, always stuck in what they used to eat in their home country, but these are the things that are most familiar to them.”

Likewise, Hispanic cultures tend to focus on tradition, such as family, brands or even the clerks who serve them:

Family: “Anybody who is old enough to remember what America was like in the ’50s and ’60s will have a much easier time understanding what the Hispanic consumer is like, because they’re very similar,” he says. They are very focused on the family. As such, they are also particularly good at pooling resources. “The more you share, the more you have. And while some might be technically poor, they might be having more fun.” They also do a lot of their own cooking at home, preferring hot breakfasts and lunches over a cold sandwich.

People Loyalty: Hispanics are also very traditional when it comes to other relationships. For example, they’re much less likely to establish a relationship with a store that has high turnover. “They’re very likely to know the clerks, feel comfortable with their clerks and establish bonds,” Garcia says. “That kind of bonding is important.”

Brand Loyalty: “They like consistency and constancy in their relationships, so the brand loyalty isn’t something that stands in isolation,” Garcia says. “It’s a natural outgrowth of the way they live their lives.”

This is despite the fact that Hispanic households make $10,000 less per year on average and, as Garcia says, “The lower your socioeconomic status, the worse the recession has been for you. “

The last thing they can afford to do is go out and save a dime on a product that they hate, instead of spending the extra 10 cents on the product that they know they like and they can trust.” Instead of switching brands, he says, they might seek out sales on the products they trust.

At  press time, Garcia was preparing additional research to present at CSP’s Consumer Insights & Engagement Forum that would look at Hispanics in comparison to the general market. Some questions, such as whether the clerks speak Spanish, weren’t being asked of the general market. But as the research was being developed, Knowledge Networks realized additional questions, such as whether to have jalapenos in the condiment area, are also evolving into general-market interests. “The use of jalapenos is very common in America now, particularly among young people,” he says, pointing to their popularity in QSR burgers. “Things we might have thought we might have taken out of the general market version, we’re not anymore. It’s a gradual cultural shift in the U.S. mainstream.”

Have a Hat

As a woman, it’s not unlikely for you to walk into a c-store with an elderly parent on your arm and a child on your hip— and you’re probably in a hurry. “Wouldn’t it blow your mind if someone in the store said, ‘Hey, can I entertain your toddler?’ ” says Susan Morris, principal of The NewHeight Group, Harbor, Maine. Women are busier than ever, she says, and wearing many more hats in the business world and in their relationships, as well as making time for themselves.

For one thing, they are working “crazy hours,” with many owning their own businesses. “You are needing to do whatever has to be done,” Morris says. “The bottom line for convenience stores is: I want what I want when I want it and I want it how I want it.”

Women also make up more than half of the population (50.3% in 2015, according to NPD data). And they live longer than men (80.6 years for females and 75.7 for males, according to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control), so if you can turn a woman into a loyal customer, you will have her for longer, Morris points out. They also are more likely to be involved in their communities, volunteer work and causes. Older women, who might have put things on hold to raise their children, now are spending time finding new experiences, such as photography and traveling.

Women also often are interested in healthier choices, but they sometimes indulge, too. Morris describes her own experience of having a diet soft drink and a brownie in her car. And retailers can cater to both sides, she says: “If I am feeling healthy, I can go to a healthy-living aisle. If I want to pick snacks and treats, have a chocoholic display.”

Because women are so busy, they are also multitaskers. “The more I can group together in one stop, the better,” she says. A retailer also can establish partnerships with other businesses to offer more. For example, at the same time a woman is grabbing a snack or getting her car washed, an on-site nail salon could provide 10-minute manicures, or a pet groomer could wash the dog. Many women today also are making the buying decisions for not only themselves, but also the people in other generations, Morris says. Meanwhile, they also are likely to be more influential in others’ decisions.

“Women are much more communicative,” she says. “And we’re much more likely to be talking about our buying decisions and engaging friends and communities. “Women are the hub of the wheel of all this buying going on out there.”

Like Sansolo, Morris also suggests taking the time to “walk in the shoes” of female customers. She describes working for a hotel chain as the industry began focusing on the female traveler. They learned important ideas to make traveling more pleasant for women: writing down room numbers discreetly rather than announcing them at the front desk, along with increasing hallway lighting and adding security to elevators to promote safety. Inside the room, skirt hangers, better bathroom lighting for putting on makeup and magnifying mirrors for plucking eyebrows emerged as key points for women.

“Lo and behold, we did all of that, and our learning was that the guys liked it, too,” she says. In addition to appreciating the discreet room numbers and better hallway lighting, they used the mirrors to shave and they would hang their pants using the skirt hangers.

“By focusing on women, I think you will find that whatever you do, Bubba is not going to mind one bit if you improve parking-lot lighting, clean up your stores, improve the bathroom experience or offer a healthy product or two,” Morris says. “Focus on women and the rest of the population will follow.” 

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