In the late 1990’s I was a marketing manager at Whiteleys Shopping Centre in Bayswater, which was London’s biggest mall at the time. Innocent days!

One of my more adrenaline-fueled moments involved being the media spokesman for the property. A quick hop from the main London TV studios, the Whiteleys was an easy backdrop to any consumer news story. So, as I faced a live Sky News camera and a journalist keen to find an original angle on the month’s latest economic figures, I landed on a phrase that seemed enlightened for the time: “Shoppers are becoming more savvy; more discerning with their spending,” I offered, happy to have cunningly nailed the journalist’s awkward question.

Job done. Back to my desk. The journalist packed up his satellite dish pleased that he’s got his story; and I was on to the next thing, chuffed to have survived the experience and managed to look like I know what I’m talking about.

Except, twenty years later, I’m not so sure I did!

Having watched numerous consumer news broadcasts since then, the revelation that shoppers are getting more “savvy” recurs time and time again.

Yet, is this actually the case? Are shoppers inherently better at discerning value now than they were 20 years ago? My hunch is that they aren’t and that shoppers have always been adept at spending with care and consideration.

At A.L. Marketing we have been conducting research across dozens of schemes, large and small, for over 20 years. Interestingly having checked back through the data, there is no evidence at all which points to shoppers becoming inherently more discerning over time.

What has changed are the tools available to maximise this considered spending. The fact that shoppers know what they want and they want it now is not particularly new. Cataloguing products and home delivery has been around for eons. William Whiteley was doing it on a grand scale from his department store in London a hundred years ago. Like us, he understood the need to be responsive to shoppers’ savviness via discounted prices and loyalty schemes.

Of course the Internet is a tremendous resource that enables shoppers to research products they want and the cheapest place to buy them with an ease undreamt of 30 years ago, let alone in William Whiteley’s day. However, other than technology developments, Whiteley would have likely recognised everything that is in a marketing manager’s repertoire today. He would also have acknowledged the timeless need to congratulate shoppers for striking a successful bargain. In a similar vein, Whitely could very well have declared a hundred years ago to the London Standard that “shoppers are more savvy than ever before.”

Alan Thornton

August 2016

Alan Thornton is joint Managing Director of London-based agency A.L. Marketing and member of ICSC’s European Marketing Group.

He has held international marketing roles at Clarks before running the marketing of Topshop. Within the property sector he was previously a Director at Donaldsons and DTZ.