Kit Yarrow, PhD, does not believe retail is dead, far from it. Consumer psychology has changed dramatically in the past decade, though, and Yarrow predicts the retailers who survive will be those who appreciate their shoppers’ potent desire for an engaging and validating experience in the marketplace.
Yarrow is a well-known researcher on consumer behavior, a popular speaker, a longtime academic and the author of two books: “Gen BuY: How Tweens, Teens and Twenty-Somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail” (Jossey-Bass, 2009) with Jane O’Donnell and “Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy” (Jossey-Bass, 2014). She has blogged for magazines like Money, Time and Psychology Today, among other publications; her most popular article was for Money magazine in 2016, The Science of Why We Buy Clothes We Don’t Wear.
Yarrow identifies “three shifts in our world, three ways in which we as people have changed noticeably in the past 5 years or so, and, because of those shifts, how our needs have changed in terms of what we feel we need to add to our lives.”
First, technology is now embedded in daily activities, our phones and laptops tether us to one another in ways that are captivating but superficial, and ultimately unsatisfactory. “We feel more disconnected, so we use brands and products to feel seen and heard, and to reconnect with others,” she says.
Second, “there’s more emotionality, with elevated levels of anger and anxiety,” in part because people may not feel as safe or accepted as they once did. “People shop differently and want different things when they are more emotional. A hassle feels doubly so.” Retailers and manufacturers both need to make it easier for shoppers to understand the benefits of their products, and to streamline the purchasing process, Yarrow says.
Third, the past several years have seen a “trend toward individualism,” which means people are no longer as likely to make purchases as part of a group. Even young people are more willing to pass up “the cool item,” Yarrow says, taking the time to find one-of-a-kind pieces, sifting through thrift stores to put together a distinctive look.
“There’s no way to succeed in retail today without understanding consumer psychology,” she says. “Consumers actually don’t want to shop online. They want to go to stores, but not the way they are now.” Shoppers like to feel connected with other people like themselves, but “they don’t want to trawl through a mall and see the same thing in every store.” Yarrow says stores mostly run by “nimble younger retailers” willing to display interesting items, not necessarily keeping them in stock, and engaging their customers at every turn are where things are headed. Shoppers can touch and feel things in these stores, try them on, photograph and post them on social media, and then have them delivered from the warehouse to their homes. Yarrow singled out Betabrand, an online retailer with a store in San Francisco, where designs are often crowd-sourced and crowd-funded. Fans who vote for a design that makes it into production get a discount on the finished product.
Does this mean the end to department and traditional retail stores is at hand? “These stores are part of our American culture, and I’m rooting for them, but they are going to have to change or die.” They must understand, Yarrow says, the consumer is in charge now.
As for online retailers, they need to “make it easy to navigate their sites, and offer opportunities to see what other shoppers are looking at and buying to create a more social environment,” she says.
In her research, Yarrow does not use focus groups, where people are invited to share their opinions of products, because she believes the real decision making about what to buy or not to buy does not occur at the conscious level.
“It’s more about how people feel than what they think,” she says.
Instead, Yarrow conducts a type of ethnography, spending time with people she often recruits through social media, going through their closets, “shopping along” on trips to stores and riding home with them after a successful, or not-so-successful, shopping trip.
“That’s where I get the goods—in the car,” she says. “People say the most wonderful things when they’re done shopping and they’re focused on the road. That’s when they can go inside themselves and help me understand why they passed this up, or bought that, how it’s related to the rest of their lives, what it all means.”
Marketers and manufacturers often fund Yarrow’s research, and sometimes are surprised that she is advising “the enemy,” but she says, “I have never worked for a company that has bad intentions. They want to make better products, and I can easily support what they are doing. No company lives on one-time purchases. If they don’t deliver, they will fail. I don’t think marketers are the enemy, and I never will.”
As Yarrow sees it, her training in clinical psychology is alive and well in her work. “I yearn to talk to consumers,” she says.
Yarrow did not set out to be psychologist. She studied journalism in undergraduate school before deciding to become a clinical psychologist. She went to graduate school at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, Calif., where the need to keep up with tuition pushed Yarrow to teach an undergraduate marketing class as an adjunct at nearby Golden Gate University (GGU) in San Francisco—the serendipitous start to her life’s work.
“I was finishing up my psychology internships when I realized I loved the research, the teaching, the assessment. That’s where my heart was,” she says. “All of a sudden, I switched.”
When a full-time position opened in the GGU marketing department, Yarrow jumped at it. “I found a way to bring in psychology by doing research in consumer behavior.” She also taught undergraduate psychology classes.
In 1992, with the encouragement of the administration, Yarrow and six colleagues founded GGU’s graduate psychology department, which Yarrow chaired for nearly 25 years. She is a professor emerita now and exploring publishing her latest research in articles or another book.
“Just like everybody else I know, I did not follow a direct path,” she says.
Yarrow started her research and writing career 20 years ago—only after she was told she would have to start publishing if she wanted to get tenure at GGU.
“I’m so grateful for that admonishment,” she says. “I had to go deep. I started it, and then I got a nice grant to do more research, and now it’s the thing I do most. I live to know why. If you look at ‘the glass of Kit,’ it’s three-quarters ‘why.’ That’s the reason I’m a professor instead of a clinical psychologist.”