Can you predict consumer behavior? NRF Research shares the clues

By Lottie Watts
Published Mar 4, 2021

National Retail Federation Senior Director of Industry and Consumer Insights Katherine Cullen shares recent retail trends, what influences consumer behavior and more for this episode of “20 Questions.”

Here are a few of the questions submitted by undergraduate students nationwide – along with Cullen’s answers.

How do you conduct research? And how often?

We conduct some research ourselves – so we’re writing the surveys and sending them out to retailers or to a panel of consumers. We often partner with market research firms or consulting firms in the retail space who would like our input and our branding on a project. So we’ll work with them to set something up to do a big a study – for example, we did one on Gen Z and another on sustainability.

We go out on a month-to-month basis directly to consumers and retailers. but we also do these big studies that can take a year to sometimes 18 months to complete.

To what extent can you predict consumer behavior?

Most of our surveys are forward-looking. They ask consumers what they’re planning to spend around a future event. What we’ve found is typically we’re in pretty close alignment with what happens. People are trending in the same direction that our data says they will. If we’re seeing an uptick in spending, often that is what occurs.

People are bad at guessing exactly how much they’re going to spend on something, so we don’t always look too much at the dollar amounts – they’re definitely a helpful barometer – but we’re looking more at are things moving up, down or staying the same.

How do retailers use your research and insights as a competitive advantage?

One way is they’ll take our studies or data we put out and use it to benchmark against their own business or operations.

For example, they might look at what we’re saying people are going to spend for St. Patrick’s Day, and the types of categories they’re going buy and say, “Are we also planning for an uptick in St. Patrick’s Day hats and shirts? If that’s what the data is showing, it’s how can we better market that? How can we use that to say where we should be going?”

Are people buying more, the same or less because of the pandemic?

Overall, we’ve seen retail sales grow through the pandemic. They increased about 6.7 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. For reference, the last time we saw growth that large was back in 2004. We’re anticipating that we’re going to see a similar level of growth in 2021.

There are a lot of factors that play into that. Lifestyles really changed as a result of COVID-19. People were doing different things or changing the role their home played, and so they needed different items to meet the new needs of their lives. And then also they were spending less on services and were diverting some of that money to retail.

What are some of the big retail trends you’ve found in recent research?

We can all attest our lives have really changed over the last year. For a lot of people, their homes have become their offices, their classrooms, their gyms – even their restaurants. The items they’re interested in buying – things like furniture, electronics, workout equipment, cooking tools – they all reflect that. We’ve seen a lot of growth in those categories.

Even as things open up, people are still investing in their homes. The nature of work has probably changed, so what people look to buy for their home spaces will probably continue to reflect that. As people start eating out again and traveling again, they’re going to be buying new categories. We might all want to stop wearing sweatpants and put on different types of clothes.

The other thing is people are just more comfortable with their options in terms of how they shop. We saw a lot of people try new ways of shopping – ordering something online that they didn’t use to or using curbside pickup. We’re going to see a lot of those trends continue because while they might have started because people were concerned about their health and safety, it turns out they’re very convenient.

In addition to our on-demand conversations with retail professionals, NRF Foundation All Access includes online Executive Mentor Experience sessions scheduled throughout March. Check out the full schedule and sign up for free today.

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