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What Shoppers Are Thinking Right Now

Consumers are feeling denial, anxiety, dread and hope. But even if they aren’t in the buying mood, brands can use this time to build deeper relationships.

When automobile sales tanked after the 2008 recession, automakers cut budgets and focused on restructuring to survive. Most did not acknowledge the fears and anxieties of customers worried about losing their jobs or the global economy.

Hyundai was an exception. In 2009, the Korean automaker promised to buy back cars from customers who lost their jobs within a year of their purchase. The campaign was a hit, and Hyundai was one of the few car companies to see higher sales that year. Its US market share hit a record high.

Hyundai provides a powerful lesson for fashion and beauty brands trying to engage with consumers during the coronavirus pandemic. Before businesses can sell to customers stuck at home, they need to address how they are feeling: worried about their health, their families and their jobs, and not all that interested in shopping.

In a mid-March survey by GlobalWebIndex, a market research firm, 50 to 60 percent of respondents in countries where Covid-19 infection rates were increasing fast (including the US and Italy) said they were extremely concerned about the virus. In the US, 68 percent of respondents to a McKinsey survey said they were spending less on apparel, and 59 percent had cut back on skin care and makeup.

The consumer mindset is not focused on spring trends or finding the it-bag of the moment. They are feeling denial, anxiety, dread and, for some, hope. But even if few are in the buying mood, brands can use this time to build deeper relationships that go beyond transactions. Retailers worried about paying next month’s rent may struggle to take this long-term approach. But those that are able to connect with scared and frustrated customers can emerge from this period more successfully.

“It’s like a triple whammy — people aren’t going out and they aren’t showing off [their style], they are afraid about money and they are paralysed by anxiety,” said consumer behaviour researcher Kit Yarrow.

She said the biggest mistake retailers can make is “getting anxious and pushing too hard” for customers to shop. Patience and compassion — as hard as that may be as retailers are laying off staff and facing months of closures — will strengthen a brand’s reputation in the long run.

“Consumers are looking for a sense of caring and unity and heroism, they want motivational stories about people, they don’t want to feel sold right now,” Yarrow said.

One email with a business update is not enough; brands need to shift their copywriting on all communications. They can’t pretend nothing is happening, but shouldn’t be too alarmist either. The key is to find a way to provide a sense of relief or validation by identifying with the anxiety everyone is feeling.

Whether they’re American, Italian or Chinese, consumers unable to leave their homes for weeks are also hungry for entertainment. Streetwear label John Elliott is sharing music playlists, for example, while the print-heavy womenswear label Tanya Taylor is remixing classic paintings with its floral patterns.

If customers have stopped buying new products, teach them new uses for the ones they already own. Glossier told customers it will offer FaceTime skin consultations, for example. Style inspiration and beauty advice are a softer sell for an item’s merits than a direct pitch.

Forget about pushing the products that are “new in” this week, said brand and marketing strategist Ana Andjelic. Inspirational stories or messages can give shoppers a mental break from the frightening news cycle.

“No one is acknowledging the fact that we are all at home and we don’t need new clothes and we don’t know if we are going to have a pay-check on Friday,” said Andjelic.

Fashion and beauty can be comforting, entertaining and escapist. Brands can reinforce that idea without asking for sales. When consumers are ready for retail therapy again, they’ll know where to go.

“Remember what fashion is about — it's about joy, it needs to bring you joy, even if you just look at those products,” Andjelic said. “Make them feel better.”

Discounts are a mixed bag: they can lead to a short-term rush of sales but can be self-defeating in the current environment because they condition the shopper to avoid buying anything at full-price.

“Trust is the basis of any successful brand, from Purell to Prada,” said consumer behaviour consultant Chris Gray. “It is tempting to think of ways to take advantage of what is happening in the moment and playing off of people’s fears or finding ways to make a quick sale, but ultimately those are going to be self-defeating.”

Rather than promising to donate a portion of each sale to a coronavirus-related cause, brands should consider donating money or supplies to hospitals instead, Andjelic said.

While sales are difficult to generate right now, growing a brand’s online community — through social media followers or newsletter signups — is still possible.

And small businesses that are struggling to keep afloat should also share that with their community, said Gray. Entireworld founder Scott Sternberg posted a selfie on Instagram with a personal letter that was honest and vulnerable but also encouraged readers to buy his brand's sweatsuits to wear at home. These kinds of messages humanise a brand, and further acknowledge the anxieties everyone is facing, and normalising them. Gray suggested brands offer an accessibly priced way for consumers to support a brand, either through a gift card or low-cost branded merchandise.

“This is time for brands to be thinking about that big picture,” he said.

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