Retailers must do more to address social isolation

For decades, retailers and researchers have been aware that shopping is as much about the enjoyment of socialising as it is about completing day to day tasks or buying gifts and accessories.

However, a new study has shown that retailers are missing a trick by not doing enough to cater for people who are socially excluded. Dr Eleftherios Alamanos, of Newcastle University Business School, is working on research that examines how social exclusion influences consumers' use of different shopping channels "including traditional stores, computers and mobile devices "and how their choices affect their happiness and wellbeing.

Together with fellow academics "Savvas Papagiannidis, from Newcastle University Business School; Charles Dennis, from Middlesex University; and Michael Bourlakis, from Cranfield University "he conducted a survey of more than 1,300 US citizens to discover their shopping habits, financial situation and levels of social exclusion. The aim was to find out if social exclusion "which can be caused by factors such as age, disability, immobility, financial distress and area of residence "had any effect on the choice of

The aim was to find out if social exclusion "which can be caused by factors such as age, disability, immobility, financial distress and area of residence "had any effect on the choice of retail channel used.

The findings confirmed the positive influence of shopping on consumer happiness and wellbeing, and showed that socially excluded individuals tend to spend more time buying their goods online, mainly via a mobile phone or tablet rather than a computer. While exclusion generally reduces happiness and wellbeing, the study found that shopping via a mobile device can overcome some of these negative feelings.

Dr Alamanos says: "Although socially excluded individuals are primarily multichannel shoppers, due to their living constraints they exploit every channel available to them. The mobile phone is a key interface for bringing them together and contributing to their happiness and wellbeing. "This tendency towards multichannel shopping is stronger for people with reduced mobility, which is one of the main drivers of exclusion. They may prefer to order goods from their smartphone or tablet at home or on the bus, rather than physically having to go into a store to buy the product.

"This doesn't mean that people who are socially isolated never go into a shop; it's just that they may not go there as frequently as some other individuals. Mobile devices provide them with a way of escaping from their reality and reconnecting with society through regular activities like online shopping. "The results suggest that shopping via a mobile phone can perform a similar social role as physical hopping "it can help consumers overcome social exclusion challenges. However, it seems that shopping online via a computer doesn't have the same effect. This highlights the pervasive role of mobile technologies.

Smartphones and tablets have become part of everyday existence, whereas people use a computer and then switch it off for a few hours." The findings will be of great interest to retailers, who are constantly searching for new and engaging ways of marketing their products to customers. Almost half of the people surveyed believed they had some form of reduced mobility, suggesting that retailers who had no strategy for targeting the socially excluded were potentially missing out on a huge segment of the market.

"We were surprised by the number of people who considered themselves to be socially isolated or living with some form of reduced mobility," says Dr Alamanos. "That's potentially a significant segment of consumers who don't visit the stores on a regular basis.

"Retailers, therefore need to do more to make it easier for these people to shop via a mobile device. They could develop a mobile-friendly website, for example, or create apps which consumers could download to their mobile devices.

"In general, retailers could make the whole shopping experience better for people who are socially isolated. If buying goods on a mobile phone is made easier, consumers will spend more time browsing online and buying more products."

The benefits of Dr Alamanos' research could be felt far beyond the retail sector. For instance, the results will be of interest to marketing managers working for any company that sells directly to the general public. Policymakers, too, could use the findings to justify the development of appropriate mobile-based communications campaigns that target socially isolated people.Dr Alamanos says: "Companies and policymakers

Dr Alamanos says: "Companies and policymakers may be aware of the increasing importance of multichannel but they also have to recognise the need to invest in appropriate infrastructure. There's also the moral aspect to consider. Companies, and especially policymakers, have a duty to help people who suffer from reduced mobility or other forms of social exclusion. There's a public decency in helping groups of vulnerable consumers."