What does the post-recession consumer look like?
If a Deloitte study conducted early this month is any indication, the average shopper is feeling better about her financial situation and is more confident and optimistic about the economy's recovery.
Still, consumers aren't ready to ditch their frugal ways, and have adopted new habits such as shopping at discount stores and comparing product prices online—sometimes even while they are standing in the store about to buy an item.
"There are some lingering concerns about the economy," said Stacy Janiak, vice chairman and Deloitte's retail leader in the U.S. "But there is a loosening up of the purse strings."
"Consumers appear to be picking up on the signals that point to brighter days ahead," she added.
Part of the more upbeat mood comes from a sense that their net worth is stabilizing, if not improving, she said. However, they are continuing to keep a watchful eye on rising energy prices, taxes, and the job market.
Still, the news looks good for retailers as they plan for the second half of this year.
Deloitte typically surveys consumers twice a year to get a read on their mood: once ahead of the back-to-school shopping season, and again ahead of the Christmas holiday shopping season. But given the questions that surround consumer spending now, the research company decided to get a fresh read on consumer sentiment this spring, and polled more than 1,000 consumers during the first week of May.
More than half, some 55 percent, of consumers surveyed think the economy has begun recovering from the recession, and nearly two-thirds (64 percent) said their household financial situation is the same or better compared with a year ago.
And retailers take note: nearly two-thirds, or about 63 percent, said they are planning to spend the same or more shopping this year than they did last year.
But don't expect consumers to spend casually as they did in the past. Consumers have acquired new shopping skills over the past two years.
"The frugal consumer will endure for at least the foreseeable future," Janiak said.
According to the survey, about 45 percent of consumers said they shopped at certain stores to save money during the recession, and seven out of ten, or about 71 percent, said they will continue to do so even as their financial situation improves.
Also, three-quarters of consumers look online for a store, price or product information before or during their in-store shopping. This includes an increasing number of shoppers who use their Web-enabled mobile phone.
"The channels are merging," Janiak said.
In the latest survey, about 21 percent of those surveyed said they used their mobile device to shop a Web site, compare product prices, research product information, or purchase a product.
That's up from the results found in the firm's holiday survey late last year. At that time, some 18 percent of those surveyed said they used their mobile phone to help them shop.
Janiak stresses that it is not just younger consumers who are using their mobile phones to shop. About 26 percent of them are members of Generation X, and about 13 percent were Baby Boomers, she said.
Social networking also continues to gain in its importance, more than half of respondents say they use social networking sites, and among them, more than four out of 10 (43 percent) interact with retailers through these channels.
Also, slightly more than half of the consumers (51 percent) say an online product review influenced their decision to buy a product or to not buy a product (50 percent).
"If a retailer hasn't considered a digital strategy, that's going to be an issue in the holiday season," Janiak said.
Retailers also will need to think hard about how they wean consumers off discounts.
Janiak said she is encouraging retailers to invest in loyalty programs, which will help retailers to learn more about a customer's shopping pattern.
Retailers also should continue to employ the strategies that served them well during the recession: keeping a sharp eye on inventory and staffing levels to manage costs and react to shifts in customer demand.
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