Is it time to rethink who your customer is? | Bill McLoughlin

Ask most furniture retailers about their customers, and you will get a description of a female most often between the ages of 45 and 64 (sometimes older). Digging down a bit, you will soon find out what “she” likes and how “she” shops, often culminating with an explanation of why “she” likes to shop in store to touch and feel her pending purchase.

And I have no doubt that, generally speaking, this is true. If your merchandise is selected with this customer in mind, if your advertising includes people who fit that description and is themed to align with your perception of that demographic, it is hardly surprising when that is the type of person who walks through the door.

It is also not surprising, based on demographics alone, that many retailers today are struggling with declining traffic. It is hard to target 90% of your merchandise and messaging to 12% of the population and expect to achieve growth.

It is also hard when we continue to talk in terms of “the customer.” Words matter, and to say, “the customer” is to embed the belief that there is one single demographic, one single lifestyle or one single anything that is going to attract an increasingly diverse and demanding customer base.

Consumers today have access to more information and exposure to more ideas, lifestyles, cultures and belief systems than at any time in human history. And what attracts one group alienates another.

For many Baby Boomers, sharing information, personal details, shopping behaviors and purchase histories is a struggle at best, often bringing back memories of George Orwell’s 1984 and its intrusive, authoritarian Big Brother (not the reality show). Conversely, many Millennials expect the stores they shop in to know their preferences and to incorporate those to deliver a more personalized shopping experience.

Moving ahead, perhaps there is an opportunity to think, speak and merchandise in a way that reflects the myriad distinct segments that make up today’s complex consumer base.

There are increasingly sophisticated tools available to identify consumer shopping behaviors, whether they align with demographic distinctions or cut across them. You live in a time when there is an unprecedented amount of data available on the consumers shopping in your stores (as uncomfortable as that may be for those of a certain age).

It is equally important to think beyond those who you already reach to understand who is not being reached and why. That effort starts with the recognition that there is not “a consumer;” there are many. Some like stores; others will furnish a lifetime of homes without ever setting foot in one. Some like to touch and feel. Others won’t ever sit on a sofa or lay on a bed until it is in their home.

As 2024 opens, we face a brave new world, one that will require thinking in new and different ways. Let’s start with this: Who are your customers? Who could they be?

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