Back in Action: U.S. Consumers Lead the Return to In-Store Shopping

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Shoppers are back, but their expectations have changed. More than two years after the pandemic halted nearly all in-person retail sales, shoppers today say they’re looking for retailers to embrace digital technology, cultivate better atmospheres, and place more emphasis on environmental sustainability, according to a new consumer survey by Mood Media.

Surveying more than 12,000 shoppers, Mood Media found that 38% of consumers are shopping in-store more often now than two years ago, and 33% are shopping in-store at the same level.

That’s an incredible turnaround from 2020 and 2021, when retailers struggled to bring back shoppers after Covid-19 restrictions. At the time, there were concerns that brick-and-mortar might never be the same, and that consumers who’d gotten comfortable shopping online wouldn’t come back to physical stores.

New data shows that’s far from the case. More consumers between the ages of 35 and 44 are visiting stores more often today than two years compared to any other age group.

While the effects of Covid lockdowns are still being felt globally in countries like China, the advantages of instant gratification now outweigh the downsides of shopping in-store for the majority of U.S. shoppers. 

“Consumers embraced digital shopping and digital technology during the pandemic, so it’s no surprise that they bring some of that digital experience with them as they return to physical stores,” says Scott Moore, global chief marketing officer for Mood Media. “They want the same access to product information, reviews, options, support, etc. in-store that they get online. As a result, their evolving expectations and comfort levels will grow even stronger and become must-haves in-store rather than just added-values.”

Aside from instant gratification, shoppers in the Mood Media survey cited having a “pleasant atmosphere” as a key driver in their decision to visit a store more than once. Staff availability and store layout contribute to that pleasant experience, as does having a “nice scent” and digital screens.

“We were a bit surprised by the degree to which consumers have returned to stores, particularly the fact that 38% are now shopping brick-and-mortar even more than before the pandemic,” says Moore. “In studies we conducted during the pandemic, we saw that consumers were eager to get back into stores again and missed aspects of the physical shopping experience such as the ability to physically touch, try and see products as well as the joy of discovery that shopping as leisure provides. So while we knew they’d be returning, we weren’t expecting the numbers to be even greater than pre-pandemic.”

Shoppers in the Mood Media survey delved deep into their considerations when avoiding or leaving a physical sales space, citing overbearing or unhelpful staff and long queues as their biggest complaints.

Moore says these survey results make it clear that for retailers, getting the basics right — things like having a nice store scent and pleasant music — is just as important as bigger picture factors, like investing in omnichannel services. Having the ability to collect online orders in-store through interactive kiosks mattered more in certain sectors than others. For example, interactive digital kiosks and free Wi-Fi were more important to consumers visiting QSR venues than other sectors.

Broadly speaking, Moore says the ability to balance digitization and automation with human interaction is something that will help retailers win over shoppers in the U.S. and globally.

“While the future of retail is more digitally focused, we still can’t forget the basics of an enjoyable shopping experience. We have to give consumers a reason to go into a store; it has to be worth the effort,” Moore says. “In some cases, that rationale can be as simple as making sure we’re still offering the human touch to the shopping experience, that we’re making sure there are smart, knowledgeable, helpful humans on the sales floor with whom a customer can have a real conversation. And the store can’t become a sterile place. We still need to create strong, emotionally engaging ‘moods’ that reflect the brand’s values and beliefs. Online may be a transaction, but in-store — when done correctly — should be an experience.”

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.