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How social advocacy is shaping retail consumer trends

Research reveals that, for the first time, consumers’ new leading value is equality.

By Erin Hueffner

Published March 25, 2021
Last updated March 25, 2021

This is the first in a series of insights from the National Retail Federation’s Big Show 2021. Read our round-up of retail CX trends for 2021.

The world is changing and so is the way we shop. A few years ago, consumers made it clear that it’s no longer just about which tee is the softest. They wanted to know if the tee was made in a sustainable way, without using forced or underpaid labor. Now, coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic and social uprisings of 2020, shoppers also want—and expect—brands to speak up for social justice.

A few years ago, consumers made it clear that it’s no longer just about which tee is the softest. They wanted to know if the tee was made in a sustainable way, without using forced or underpaid labor.

Gartner research reveals that, for the first time, consumers’ new leading value is equality. The value statement “I strongly believe that all people should have equal opportunity and equal access in all areas of life” has risen from its rank in sixth place in 2019 to the top spot. It’s also the first time in more than a decade that loyalty isn’t the number one consumer value.

Consumers want brands to speak up for change

A 2020 study by the National Retail Federation (NRF) found that 61 percent of respondents think retailers should take a stance on social justice issues. That opinion is amplified from Black respondents (83 percent), Generation Z (78 percent), and urban dwellers (70 percent). On the flip side, only 21 percent of overall respondents think retailers shouldn’t raise their voice on social issues.

[Related read: The hottest CX trends for retailers are here to stay]

People care if you’re doing the right thing, and they’re seeking out brands that align with their values. According to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2021, 63 percent of respondents want to buy from companies that are socially responsible. The social awakening of 2020 has made people rethink where and how they spend their money.

Gartner research reveals that, for the first time, consumers’ new leading value is equality…It’s also the first time in more than a decade that loyalty isn’t the number one consumer value.

“Shoppers who do believe retailers should take a stand are more likely to project negative opinions onto retailers that remain silent,” said Todd Szahun, senior vice president of Kantar Retail, in an interview with NRF. “Shoppers who don’t believe retailers should take a stand believe that even when retailers take a stand, it may not change how shoppers evaluate them.”

There’s a real risk to staying silent

The pandemic accelerated some shopping habits that are likely here to stay. The Zendesk Customer Experience Trends 2021 report found that nearly a third of customers started buying from new companies during the pandemic. This shift away from tried-and-true brands is likely to stay—and may inspire loyalty towards newer discoveries. Companies can’t depend on customers to remain loyal, and it’s important to heed this behavioral shift.

[Related read: Post-pandemic trends from a futurist—what employees and customers want]

That said, taking a stance isn’t enough; consumers also expect retailers to take action. Slogans and social media posts are too easy; consumers want to know what you’re going to do. For example, any company that says “Black Lives Matter” should have a transparent commitment to fostering diversity within its own workforce.

The social awakening of 2020 has made people rethink where and how they spend their money.

For retailers, this also sometimes means distancing the brand from media or lucrative advertising platforms when there are ideological and values-based differences. Putting your money where your mouth is matters, and missteps can be costly. “It’s difficult for a brand to stay silent,” Shawn Grain Carter, professor of fashion business management at the Fashion Institute of Technology told Retail Dive. "Fashion knows that conspicuous consumption depends on relating to the consumer. But if you're not going to be authentic in your messaging and your actions, we see the brands that have suffered."

[Related read: Start using inclusive language with your team and customers]

Wearing your values on your sleeve

It can feel like a risk to take a stand on social issues, especially if it’s a new step for your company. But doing the right thing by your customer means making sure your brand story and social justice vision are aligned. When done well, the stance your company takes can earn consumer trust and loyalty, but it can also help us all move toward real and positive change.

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Read the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report.