The Digital Divide Goes Beyond Age

Consumers in big cities have very different behaviors

Author: Andria Cheng

June 6, 2017

The story of the digital divide and disruption is often dominated by headlines of how millennials or the even younger Gen Z are exhibiting digital habits different from the other generations, but there’s another big digital divide that’s not as well told: that between the biggest US cities and the rest of the country.

For instance, when it comes to consumers’ willingness for companies to collect their personal data via “intelligent devices” in return for a better experience or a financial reward, the percentage of consumers in the three biggest US cities, especially New York and Los Angeles, far outpaced the national average: 63% of consumers in New York, 57% in Los Angeles and 47% in Chicago said yes to that question, versus 37% nationwide, according to a 2016 survey of more than 2,500 US consumers as part of a global survey by Accenture Strategy.

Accenture recently parceled out the city finding as part of its new study titled “Painting the Digital Future of Retail and Consumer Goods Companies,” released on Tuesday.

The sharp contrast between consumers in the top US cities, New York and Los Angeles especially, and the rest of the country is repeated across a variety of other digital habits. In another example, 57% and 53% of New York and Los Angeles consumers respectively said they are interested in using sensor-based digital devices to “pre-emptively address” their needs without human intervention, more than double the 26% of national average.

“As a retailer you have to think very closely about how you localize,” said Chris Donnelly, senior managing director and global retail lead at Accenture Strategy, in an interview, adding one-size-fits- all retail format doesn’t work anymore. “The concept that works in New York doesn’t necessarily work in Iowa. Retailers are experimenting with different formats and asking if they need smaller urban formats. You see more multi-format retail.”

New York and other major metropolitan market consumers may have a more open digital attitude in part because those cities tend to be where newer retail formats and service models like Instacart grocery delivery service are more readily available, he said. Those consumers “are more exposed to more experiment and variety of retail." 

However, while the percentage of New York and Los Angeles consumers does skew higher than other cities like Chicago and Minneapolis, Donnelly said its survey doesn’t have enough data to suggest the behavioral difference is primarily a coastal thing. The firm’s global survey also found similar contrast between urban and other markets, he said.

In other recent findings, more than three-fifths of New York and Los Angeles consumers each also said they would use a clothing rental subscription service or sign up for a subscription service for clothing purchase that’s curated for them based on previous orders. In contrast, the national percentage for both questions was just over 30% each.

With Amazon Dash setting the agenda for consumers’ auto replenishment of consumable items, at least 70% of consumers in both New York and Los Angeles said they would use “smart sensors” to detect when household goods like detergent is running low and has it automatically reordered and delivered to them. More than half of Chicago and Minneapolis consumers also favor that. That's compared to national average of 47%.

Meanwhile, about 70% each of New York and Los Angeles consumers said they would consider auto replenishment of fresh food items, compared to 43% of the national average.

“Different people define convenience in different ways,” Donnelly said. “For some people it’s someone delivering the toothpaste to their door. For others, it’s going to a supercenter and getting everything all at once on a Saturday.”

Piecing many pieces of the consumer puzzles has many retailers and consumer products companies scratching their heads. Accenture estimates there’s a total of $2.95 trillion at stake over the next decade for both the retail industry and consumers.

“The [digital] disruption is pretty unprecedented,” Donnelly said. Retailers “are all struggling to navigate the changes out there.”