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How Short Attention Spans Are Changing Shoppers

Kimberly Palmer

The typical shopper might zone out with her smartphone after she gets her children to bed at night, browsing through discounts on a coupon website or reading about a sale on her favorite store's Facebook page. Her short attention span also means it's harder than ever for a retailer to convince her to be a loyal customer.

This shopper doesn't like to be told a retailer has a new "great" product if it wasn't custom made for her, and she doesn't want to make a purchase without first checking out reviews by others. If a shop features popular items from Pinterest or asks for her feedback on Facebook, then she might be more likely to give them her business.

Sound like a brave new world of shopping? It is. Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University, breaks down the changes, for both shoppers and retailers, in her new book, "Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy." She says shoppers today need to make an effort to avoid being manipulated, while retailers can beat out their competitors by catering to consumers' narcissism.

[Read: How Social Media Can Boost Your Bottom Line.]

Shoppers often don't even realize they're being tricked by retailers today, Yarrow says. "I see them making really massive mistakes and not being aware of it," she says. That's because shoppers are bombarded by so many advertisements offering so many deals that they often make purchases they don't really need or hadn't planned just to feel the satisfaction of landing that discount.

Yarrow's advice? Just stop. Put away the smartphone before you make a purchase you hadn't planned on making, because chances are the deal will still be there tomorrow if you really need the item. In fact, that's advice that Yarrow herself has started following. "The more bargain-focused you are, the more money you spend -- that (finding) has changed my own shopping behavior," she says. "Whatever your reason is for being attracted to bargains, get over it and focus on what you really want and need," she advises.

It's easy for her to see why people are so tempted to grab those deals, though. "Bargains give people a sense of mastery in a really out-of-control world," she says. "I saw a lot of people that maybe didn't feel respected at work or seen in their communities, but they could nail that bargain." That sense of pride and accomplishment might have come from personal relationships or work a decade ago, but now it comes from shopping.

[See: 11 Money Moves to Make Before You Turn 40.]

Trolling for discounts has also become the go-to relaxation activity for many people, Yarrow notes. People like to zone out while searching for bargains. "It's what knitting might have been 40 years ago -- an escape to allow your mind to relax," she says. During her research, Yarrow noticed that many people jump over to shopping sites during brief breaks from the most stressful parts of their days, such as on lunch breaks or after putting children to bed for the night. The subsequent thrill from shopping helps to push that stress aside. "They get a little dopamine rush when they find a bargain," she says.

Retailers looking to stand out in the crowded marketplace can appeal to customers' desire for custom products they feel they had a role in creating by soliciting feedback on social media sites, Yarrow says. Crowdsourcing ideas that are then incorporated into products helps consumers feel powerful, and that's a feeling people often seek when they feel disempowered in other parts of their lives, like work. "Consumers want to have a say in product design and who gets to be the model," she says. That way, she adds, "Consumers feel like they're the king."

Shoppers' relationships with companies, which used to flow in one direction -- from company down to the customer -- are now much more fluid, she says. Consumers not only provide feedback to companies via social media, but they also talk to each other, sharing product reviews that helps to guide purchases.

Even with that crowdsourcing, though, it's still a struggle for companies to get shoppers' attention amid the noise of daily life. In fact, Yarrow argues that shoppers' brains are different today, and less able to focus, because they're used to processing so much information at once and being so stimulated. "We all have the attention span of a gnat," she says, which means retailers have to innovate more to truly seem different and special.

[See: 10 Ways Companies Annoy Customers.]

One trick is to seem like a respite from our crazy, stressful world. That means stores that make shopping an enjoyable adventure or escape resonate more with today's busy shoppers. Yarrow cites the "Life is Good" brand of clothing and Kind Bars as two examples of companies that are beating the competition by associating themselves with good feelings. "People are attracted to something good and wholesome," Yarrow says. That's one new trend that feels decidedly retro.

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