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Retail Traffic

EXPERT Q&A: Never Normal

Rising anxieties and economic pressures are beginning to take their toll on consumer spending.

Retail Traffic: What's the background of the How America Shops study.

Liebmann: If you don't understand the shopper, it can be very challenging. We began this survey 15 years ago. Wal-Mart was just beginning to make national inroads. It was then we noticed the beginning of cross-shopping — seeing people shopping at Wal-Mart that we wouldn't have expected. We had never seen that before. That was the beginning. Since then, we've published “How America Shops” every two years. In that time the study has grown. In the first study we looked at eight retail channels. Today, we track 24.

RT: What's the major conclusion from the latest study?

Liebmann: We've seen a dramatic shift that really reflects the impact of the last five years and the toll that constant turmoil has taken on the consumer. In the last five or six years, the shopping at every channel — other than the traditional department stores — increased. In 2006, that no longer happened. We were so shocked by our findings that we actually did the research twice — once in November and then again in February. We wanted to make sure we weren't just reading the immediate impact of Katrina. But we went back in February and we found the effect was still there. The mindset of consumers is of uncertainty and economic anxiety. We're calling it the “never normal” mindset, where after a period of the Iraq War, Katrina, gas prices, a cooling housing market, etc., people are always waiting for that next shoe to drop.

RT: What does that mean for consumers?

Liebmann: There's been a retrenchment. Consumers have hit a wall. There's an emergence of a “great divide.” Over the past 10 years there had been very little differentiation when looking across channels. Everyone shopped everywhere, it was a sort of shopping democracy. Even lower-income consumers were strategic and making luxury purchases here or there. Now what we're seeing is that the people with higher incomes — above $75,000 — are shopping everywhere. People below that have become very price conscious. So basically if you don't supersize or specialize, then you're floundering right now.

RT: What's some of the most compelling data in the study?

Liebmann: We've found that 57 percent of people say they are making fewer trips to shopping centers. In addition, 50 percent are cutting back on what they buy. That's up from 30 percent in the last study.

RT: How should retailers respond?

Liebmann: Our biggest message to retailers is that people are telling us that they want good service. They want to know their shopping experience will be fail-safe. I think retailers have lost sight of that in a world of “everyday low prices.” Also, what's new and innovative is big. Make it dazzling for people. Some people are rethinking layouts. Even Wal-Mart is testing a store where there's an easier point-of-view and better signage rather than having it set up so people have to walk in a maze and pass by everything.

RT: What do these trends mean for owners of retail real estate?

Liebmann: Regional malls are the losers on lots and lots of levels. With lifestyle centers, the ones that have a smart mix of high and low price points, will fair best. It's not that people won't spend, but it's figuring out where. For example, pets have become one of the leading categories that people have spent more on for six years.

Wendy Liebmann is the Founder and President of WSL Strategic Retail, an advisor to retailers and manufacturers. The firm publishes its How America Shops, report on U.S. buying habits. biannually.

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