With all of the variables impacting today's retail environment, wouldn't it be a lot easier if we knew exactly what consumers want, when they want it and how much they're willing to pay? While there's still no crystal ball, WSL Strategic Retail's "How America Shops" study can give you surprising insights into the minds and behaviours of today's shopper. Here, Stacy Baker outlines 8 must-know facts about consumers.

1: Price rules
Two-thirds of women aged 18 to 70 years (66 per cent) say: "It's important for me to get the lowest price on most things I buy." This means that the majority of shoppers are focusing on price at any given time, but the upshot is that another third aren't.

Sounds confusing, but it's not. This simply means that a successful retailer will understand its role to shoppers, and deliver just that. "Be good at what you do," says Candace Corlett, principal of WSL Strategic. "If your shoppers expect you to have low prices or the most discounted merchandise, then you better be the best at that. As soon as they find out someone is lower that's where they'll go."

On the other hand if your role is to provide luxury, "a respite from bargain shopping," then you must excel at that. What you don't want to do is give them merchandise that causes them to pause and ask themselves: "Is this worth the price or can I get it cheaper somewhere else?"

This adds another challenge to the retailer beyond getting the right merchandise selection. But if you understand who you are as a retailer and what your shoppers expect from you, you're one step ahead of the game.

2: Value is key
Six out of ten women (59 per cent) say: "Before I buy something now, I stop to ask myself, 'Is this a good use of my money?'" The question then for retailers is "how can I make my merchandise (ie potential purchases) more essential to my shoppers?

It comes down to same premise of knowing who you are and creating an atmosphere and product selection to match. "Gap struggled because people would look at its merchandise and say it wasn't worth it or 'I just don't need another khaki or white shirt," she says.

"Recently, they've just flipped the switch and now you see people lining up saying '$54 dollars for green pants or an orange vest is fine.'" They overcame "the pause" with exciting colours without straying too much from their overall lifestyle feel.

"When you think about it, it's not rocket science - they simply had to courage to ask themselves, "are shoppers fed up with denim and khaki and white?'" she adds. The answer was 'yes,' so the retailer gave people fuchsias and yellows and purples.

Corlett also points to Coach, which has done a good job of moving beyond its brown and black handbags with blues, yellows and pinks. They gave consumers a reason why they needed more than one or two Coach items, but rather a wardrobe.

3: Make it easy
Six out of ten (57 per cent) of women say: "I shop differently now to help simplify my life." If you look at the lives most of us have created, this isn't too hard to believe.

"We've created a culture that has people on the go every minute," Corlett says. "It's hard to find people who haven't signed on for the madness. Socially, working women have layered on children's activities, hobbies, exercise and more, yet there are still just 24 hours in a day."

This leaves not as much time to shop and unfortunately most of us have reached a point where something has to give. One way to simplify life is to shop more efficiently.

"Online shopping is one answer - it's a great source for essentials, gifts and browsing," she adds. "We've done the footwork by browsing on the site in order to zero in on what you need in the store."

Another option is to have sales associates armed with information and great customer service skills. For example, Corlett says a smart associate can just step back and look around to determine which shoppers look puzzled, then offer assistance. Men look puzzled in lingerie, grandparents in kid's sections, etc. Train associates to look for cues and you're more likely to make a sale.

4: Mix high-end with low-budget
Today's savvy shopper makes new choices: she'll spend on a new Coach bag or an iPod, but trade down to a lower-price analgesic or hair care product, says Corlett. This isn't related to the economy but more about the mindset of the consumer. Saving a little on less-important items means you have more to spend on designer products.

"We have a shopping culture of smart shoppers," she adds. "Within ten years we've gone from people being pigeon-holed as discount shoppers or prestige but now everyone shops everywhere."

You see consumers mixing Prada skirts with H&M boy beaters or a Gap handbag with a Marc Jacobs coat. This is really an opportunity for retailers to ask themselves how they can mix it up in their stores and give people a range of styles.

5: Make it special or all-encompassing
Retail winners are those who "supersize it," says Corlett, because when everything is under a single roof (a la Wal-Mart, Costco, Amazon), shoppers can maximise their spending time.

The other option is to "specialise it," which means you are the expert providing a unique, distinctive service, such as Coach, Burberry, Starbucks or Apple. If you don't satisfy either, as in the case of department stores, you run the risk of losing both sets of customers. People want to get everything all at once or go to the place that specialises in what they need.

6: Discounting is in
62 per cent of women shopped a "dollar store," like Family Dollar, Dollar
General or Dollar Tree, in the last 90 days (up from 56 per cent in 2002), making these types of retailers what Corlett says could be the new Wal-Marts. That's as many as shopped in a superstore (like Wal-Mart or Target), or in a department store, she says.

So is this trend economy-driven or consumer mindset driven? "We've discovered when new channels emerge and develop a following, they stay around," she says. "Dollar stores are here to stay. It's about saving and emerging a single-person household." The good news is that these venues are unlikely to gather more apparel business than just the random commodity. The "risk" is the change in consumer mindset.

7: Go online
The Internet has now become an everyday shopping place, according to the study results. More women shopped online in the "last week" (13 per cent) than shopped a drug store (9 per cent).

How can retailers better take advantage of this? By selling online or merely having an online presence? "You need to be everywhere shoppers are," Corlett says. "You have to know shoppers and if you sell replenishment items, your merchandise has to be where they can order, say, their favourite linens or sheets or style of lingerie.

"People are looking to get the essentials done more efficiently, which leaves them more time for leisure shopping."

Shopping has become the leisure activity in the United States and the UK because it's entertainment and a great distraction so you have to be sure you're available in every place at all times your shopper wants you.

8: Thrill them
What's the No1 factor that defines a woman's most favourite place to shop? "It's a good place to spend time browsing," say 64 per cent. This requires more research and a drive to get to know your customers better.

Corlett points to Gap, Coach, Burberry, Zara and the new improved Selfridges. These retailers keep new merchandise flowing in colours and styles that speak to the lifestyle statement they've created.

By appealing to what your consumers find entertaining and enjoyable (say, piano playing at Nordstrom or a climbing wall at REI), odds are high that you'll keep them coming back.

By Stacy Baker.