Engaging the Subconscious Shopper


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When you buy a product at a grocery store are you on ‘auto-pilot’ or are you engaged with your shopping experience? A new Neilson report called, “Category Shopping Fundamentals,” provides some great information on this. Let me explain, when my wife Lorraine asks me to pick up some milk at the store I am just one of a huge number as, according to the survey, nothing has more power to drive consumers to the store than milk (59% of instances), closely followed by pet food (56%) and baby food (52%).

When I shop I tend to go into the store, grab a basket and navigate the aisles with her list in mind. I am on ‘auto-pilot’. I grab the milk and make my way to the checkout. I am still on auto- pilot. But my regular readers will know that my subconscious mind is scanning things whilst my conscious mind is thinking of other things, what work have I got to do when I get home, did I book the fishing boat for the weekend, will I get home in time to see the game…

As I walk around my subconscious mind interrupts my conscious mind and says “wow, look, cookies on special offer!” I step out of my auto pilot and put the cookies in my basket and then switch auto pilot back on. For the briefest of moments I went into being an ‘engaged’ shopper. According to the survey I was engaged and conscious about my surroundings.

What happened to me at the store happens in countless grocery markets across the nation, and probably the world. Nielsen’s survey tells us that US consumers only choose consciously about 50% of the things that end up in their cart. The rest of the items in there are the result of shopping subconsciously.

The Nielsen study, which analyzed over 50,000 purchases from 100 fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), also tells us that people only left home to buy 72% of what ends up in their cart. That mean the rest of the cart, or the other 28%, is what we call an ‘impulse buy’. These impulse buys are good news for branders and marketers everywhere, as it indicates that there is hope for them to make it in the cart even if it isn’t on the shoppers mental ‘shopping list’ when they left home for the store.

Part 1: Early Engagement of the Subconscious Shopper

When it comes to customer experience, most organizations focus on the conscious side of their experience. This is the rational part of a customer’s interaction with them and includes things like how quickly you respond to questions or how reliable the shipping date is, etc. But, unfortunately for these organizations, this is only half of the reason that a consumer chooses the product.

The subconscious experience makes up at least half of the reason that a person does something. This part is harder to quantify and control. This is one our most popular modules in our Customer Experience Management (CEM) Certification training. Ignoring the subconscious part of a customer experience is not going to help a brand grow, or even survive, in today’s fast-changing market place.

Part 2: Nabbing the Impulse Buys

Nielsen reports that 72% of what goes in the cart was headed there before your shopper left for the store. But that does leave about 28% of the items up for grabs. These are the impulse buys and if you play your brand engagement strategy right, you can nab these purchases at the last minute.

The cookies were not on my list when I entered the store, but they were certainly in my basket on my way out of it.  This is one of the 28% of the items that Nielsen attributes to the ‘impulse buys’. So the second part of a marketer’s strategy needs to get the impulse buy from buying a product to buying their product.

Let’s look at this from a food retailer’s point of reference. Nielsen identifies the top 5 Unplanned (Impulse) Food purchases. These include:

  • Candy (non-chocolate varieties)
  • Chocolate
  • Cookies
  • Frozen Desserts/bakery items
  • Frozen Snacks or Appetizers

These items are typically not what Nielsen calls planned purchases at the store. Planned purchases, like milk and eggs are often chosen while the shopper is on Auto Pilot, letting their subconscious walk them to their location in the store and choose the item and put it in the cart.

The secret of getting non-planned purchases into the cart, or impulse buys, is to get the subconscious mind to interrupt the conscious mind through the offer, the in store promotion or special displays so they have a meaningful impact on purchase decisions, as they will consciously and subconsciously draw the customer’s attention to the shelf. Another good way to do this is to offer free samples. Smell can be a great way of jogging people from auto-pilot as smells have a great impact on our brains. Consider the times that you have sampled a product with in-store cooking displays.

Nielsen’s study was about grocery purchases, but the concept translates to many industries. Nielsen’s study shows us that the subconscious is always working to create a connection between brands we buy and brands we pass by at the store. Make sure that you are doing everything you can to make your customers’ subconscious make your ‘cookies’ the ones that they put in their carts.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Colin Shaw
Colin is an original pioneer of Customer Experience. LinkedIn has recognized Colin as one of the ‘World's Top 150 Business Influencers’ Colin is an official LinkedIn "Top Voice", with over 280,000 followers & 80,000 subscribed to his newsletter 'Why Customers Buy'. Colin's consulting company Beyond Philosophy, was recognized by the Financial Times as ‘one of the leading consultancies’. Colin is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast, which is rated in the top 2% of podcasts.


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