Consumer study: What is trust - and how has the recession affected it?

12th Oct 2009

New research from Shoppercentric reveals the impact of the recession on customer trust. But what do shoppers themselves define as 'trust'? Danielle Pinnington reveals the findings.

We have been hearing increasing numbers of businesses talking about trust, and whether trust – in brands and in retailers – has been affected by events over the last 12 months. This got us thinking about what trust means to shoppers: what are they thinking about when deciding whether or not a brand or retailer is trustworthy; and what role this has in their decision making process.
So in August we conducted as series of focus groups, in-depth interviews, and 1009 quantitative online interviews among shoppers in order to investigate ‘trust’ within the shopping process. The first insight to emerge was that shoppers don’t spontaneously talk about trust as a purchase decision factor in its own right – and yet they recognise that trust is playing a role in their decisions:
“Trust is one of those big words isn’t it? I suppose when I talk about ‘their quality’ or ‘their service’ what I mean is that I trust them to always offer quality. But I would never think of it like that normally” Focus group respondent
In fact trust appears to be an amalgamation of factors, including:
  • Ambience; consistency; familiarity; convenience; customer/staff service; corporate responsibility; promotions; individuality / uniqueness; quality; word of mouth; speed/efficiency; transparency; and value for money.
The factors that determine whether a store or brand is to be trusted vary considerably depending on the individual’s own priorities, the shopping occasion, and the channel used. For example, the Porsche owner may look for a petrol station that he knows can be trusted to supply quality fuel, whereas the commuter may look for the outlet he trusts to offer the lowest price.
In talking to shoppers it was clear that trust can be defined as an equation:
Trust =       Experience
            Needs + Expectations
For shoppers, trust is built when the experience matches both their needs and their expectations. So, a corporate responsibility campaign that bears no resemblance to the shopper experience at the coal-face in-store is unlikely to a positive impact on shoppers trust.
What is interesting is that the recession is placing many shoppers in a position where they may not have experience of a store or brand, and so that element of the trust equation is missing:
  • Redundancies or cuts in salaries/hours are forcing shoppers to re-evaluate their store / brand choices on the basis of budget constraints
  • The desire to be more prudent in their purchase choices means shoppers are considering new stores or new products
As a result, they look to fill the gap through a range of sources of information to fill the experience gap, and a number of the most popular sources of information are those that are outside a company’s sphere of direct influence:
  • 64% of shoppers would use word of mouth
  • 37% would use on line reviews
  • 31% would refer to press reports
  • 22% would refer to consumer review magazines
In comparison, the typical routes that companies use to influence opinions are of less relevance overall:
  • 46% of shoppers would refer to the company website
  • 36% would reference TV advertising
This demonstrates the desire for shoppers to access objective opinions rather than taking what a company says about itself as a given.
Furthermore, our research revealed that there are actually two levels of trust at play in the shopper’s mind:
  1. Corporate integrity: which relates to corporate responsibility, staff/supplier treatment, transparency, consistency and heritage
  2. Tangible delivery: which is about the business’s ability to meet the shopper’s individual needs and expectations during the purchase process
This differentiation perhaps goes some way to explain why shoppers are after objective opinions when wishing to fill the experience gap, rather than relying on corporate information sources.
There is a very real sense from shoppers that they are more interested in actions than talk. Retailers and brands have to earn trust because ultimately trust is about the relationship between the business and the shopper. The strength of that relationship has a direct impact on the purchase decisions made.
Those businesses that put shopper relationships at the heart of their business will be the long-term winners, regardless of recessions. It’s about making a real connection in order to engage the shopper, to generate trust and therefore build loyalty. Retailers and brands that work out the needs and expectations of their shoppers and are able to deliver a positive experience in relation to these are the retailers and brands who will generate trust to the benefit of their businesses in the long-term.
After all, the brands that shoppers turn to in times of trouble are those they ‘trust’.

Danielle Pinnington is managing director at Shoppercentric, an independent agency specialising in shopper behaviour research.


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