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Priorities, Redefined: Meet The Post-Aspirational Shopper

The days of the aspirational purchase—buying an item because it evokes a sense of financial achievement beyond what is realistic—are over. Not by coincidence, Mad Men-style advertising—that tippy-toe reach for the elegant, the seductive, the out-of-reach—isn’t exactly connecting with consumers anymore, either. 

If this style of marketing doesn’t work, what does? Has it been replaced? Its target definitely has: Meet the post-aspirational shopper.

Consumer-borne trends are leading the market now, and retailers, manufacturers, and designers are scrambling to keep up. While once it was common for consumers to spend heavily in order to appear affluent, now even the truly affluent shop in dollar stores. And once everyone wanted to look comfortable, if not actually rich; now consumers want to feel comfortable.

Where does this leave mainstream marketing?

Marketing: Then And Now
Designers used to introduce their lines at the start of the season, and the rest of the market followed—even though that market was divided. A small contingent of moneyed consumers bought actual designer items, then there was a larger group of average consumers who bought knockoffs or inexpensive items influenced by top designers, if not actually made by them.

In the decade or so prior to 9/11, things got a little extreme. Even the least affluent Americans were willing to spend heavily to appear affluent. The very idea of aspiration made sense then, since between 1992 and 1999 the U.S. economy was growing by an average of 4% a year. Consumers felt that money was easy to come by—and if not money, at least credit. Simultaneously, designers noted for top-tier items created mid-tier lines aimed at making the aspirational purchase even easier. It was easy to market to consumers who played out their ambition, not their reality.

Then came 9/11, and a bit later, the Great Recession of 2008. Suddenly everything related to spending and credit changed. With a very real loss of discretionary income, responsible spending was in. Credit was out. This has morphed into a new normal for the economy, for retail, and for consumers. Shoppers are buying differently.

So Who Is the Post-Aspirational Shopper?
While it’s tempting to dub Millennials post-aspirational shoppers and be done with it, we believe this is a broader trend evidenced by shopping behaviors we’ve noticed changing across the board. Millennials are definitely frugal, except in a handful of categories—rendering them definitely non-aspirational.

However, Boomers, too, are spending less in the same categories than they did a few years ago. Consumers across the board value experiences over stuff. And everyone loves dollar stores; off-price shopping is way up across all demographics.

Similarly, while high-end spending has gone down in some areas, with direct hits to luxury categories, such as high-end jewelry (down 4%) and handbags (down 8%), NPD’s Retail Tracking Service research shows that average-priced brand sales are growing incrementally each year—from 1.3% growth in 2014 to 3.9% in 2016.

How To Market To Post-Aspirational Shoppers
So how do you reach these post-aspirational consumers? As usual, it’s instructive to follow the money. They are putting their dollars and their shopping efforts into signature items. They’ll invest time in researching and choosing items that serve as the focal point of how they want to be seen.

This has led to a shift in external focus, too—now the home, the street, and social media, not the runway—are where these new trends are coming to life. Consumers aren’t interested in looking or acting like someone else anymore; they want to look and act like the most authentic (and Instagram-friendly) version of themselves. This all points to a shopper who is spending a lot more time at home than out at restaurants or clubs (remember clubs?), leading to a rise in spending in categories such as the home/kitchen and electronics.

What does seem to be working are efforts to market to post-aspirationals online. Driven by minimum order requirements for free shipping, the ease of online price comparison and research, and easy return policies, they spend vastly more online in certain categories than they do in physical stores. For example, our data show that even young Millennials spend more than twice as much on apparel and accessories online ($56.88) as they spend in stores ($23.98); for home goods, the disparity approaches three times as much of older Millennials’ online spending ($54.66) as brick-and-mortar spending ($19.44).

Prioritization is another aspect of the post-aspirational trend in spending. As mentioned above, this new consumer is far more interested in individuality than in fashion and therefore is fascinated by artisanal and handcrafted items. Post-aspirationals are skittish about getting into too much debt, so they will spend time researching brands and products that deliver value or uniqueness, rather than cachet.

Their preference for experiences over things is evidenced by last year’s dollar volume change in luggage (up 4%). They can also be observed searching carefully for items or foods that enhance an experience and render it photogenic—therefore suitable for sharing on social media.

Taking a broader view, anyone marketing to post-aspirational shoppers will need to understand—and find ways of actualizing—that the only brands they’re truly interested in are their own. Don’t focus on selling them the aspirational item when their focus is elsewhere—on the home, on the experience-able, online, and above all, on themselves.

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