American consumers are spending record amounts at their favorite retailers, with the forecast calling for a 4.4 percent increase to $3.8 trillion this year. So it’s not surprising that stores, websites and direct-to-consumer companies are becoming increasingly important to them. What is surprising, though, is the shift in their favorites, underscoring key trends in how retailer brands are gaining–and losing–relevance.

The Prophet Brand Relevance Index®, now in its fifth year in the U.S., quantifies the science behind these consumer preferences. Our U.S. survey asked 13,500  people to rank hundreds of brands they’re familiar with, answering many questions about the relevance of those brands to their daily lives. That data enables us to measure what we believe are the four primary drivers of relevance. Our Index tells us if a brand is….

  • Customer obsessed: The brand knows you better than you know yourself
  • Distinctively inspired: The brand speaks to your heart
  • Pervasively innovative: The brand continually finds new ways to engage
  • Ruthlessly pragmatic: The brand is dependable, and right where you need it

In our U.S. top 50, Costco, Trader Joe’s and Etsy are finding more ways to become indispensable. Amazon–while still in the top 10–is showing some weakness. And brands like REI, Zappos and Dollar Shave Club are rising fast, making it clear that there are many paths to peoples’ hearts.

Here are some valuable insights from this year’s rankings:

Amazon continues to create relevance in consumer’s lives through convenience and assortment, earning one of the highest “can’t imagine living without” ratings. As it continues to experiment with new categories, it also gets exceptionally high marks for “always finding new ways to serve.’” While it continues to hit on all cylinders in terms of what matters to customers, it slipped from second place to seventh in overall rankings. We see a few watch-outs that could explain the drop, including softness across attribute ratings of “trust” and “emotional connection.” Many observers interpreted its 2017 acquisition of Whole Foods Market as a critical part of its strategy to break into groceries in a more meaningful way. Yet, Whole Foods, which we rank separately, plunged in this year’s ranking, dropping from No. 72 to No. 148.

While Whole Foods is disappointing people, two other food retailers are gaining relevance. Both Costco (rising to No. 21 from No. 25) and Trader Joe’s (jumping to No. 25 from No. 41) defy conventional wisdom, as these brick-and-mortar players rock the ranking. Both brands do it via inspiration— outperforming on such measures as “has a set of beliefs and values that align with my own.” But with their conscious effort to promote exploration and discovery with new products and promotions that surprise and delight, they also ace innovation dimensions. Each are finding new ways to meet customers’ needs by offering products they deem significantly better than other retailers.

Etsy is also rising on its ability to inspire, up to No. 33 from No. 35. Of the hundreds of brands we rank, it places seventh overall in “makes me feel inspired.”

Other top 100 brands we’re watching closely include Sephora at No. 69, moving ahead of rival Ulta Beauty, at No. 73. Sephora’s leapfrog comes amid continued investment in mobile shopping, as well as doubling down on store improvements for a better omnichannel experience. Its results are even more surprising given a racial profiling incident that resulted in closing all U.S. stores for diversity training. While some skeptics believed the move wasn’t enough, the brand also used the event to launch its “We Belong to Something Beautiful” diversity campaign. We’ll see if its “beliefs and values” scores improve next year.

REI is another brand that demonstrates just how powerful purpose is. It’s beating competitors, including the North Face and Patagonia, on measures of inspiration and emotional connection. At the same time, it’s become increasingly practical. The co-op says investments in technology allow for better integration between online and offline shopping. And a smarter merchandise mix, including localization efforts, are driving sales and rental income. It paid off – the brand climbed 23 spots this year, breaking into the top 100 at No. 87.

People are often curious why some of the world’s largest brands fare so poorly on the BRI, so it’s worth taking a closer look at Walmart. While it remains the largest retailer by revenue (Amazon surpassed the Bentonville giant for the first time this year on a composite measure of sales, profit, assets and valuation), it still has perceived relevance in the bottom 20 percent of the Index, falling from No. 161 to No. 180 this year. Low scores for “innovation” and “inspiration” continue to dog the retailer. Those perceptions persist despite soaring online sales and online grocery sales that are the envy of the industry. Again, it will be interesting to see if these investments can move the needle on relevance next year.

Walmart’s Sam’s Club fell a whopping 30 spots this year, with low marks for engaging with consumers creatively, including its inability to push the status quo and live up to its promises. This may be due to Sam’s continuing bad press for unannounced store closings and layoffs. It’s also testing new technologies and improving home delivery, so we’re watching closely to see if consumers perceive changes from these moves.

Final Thoughts

Each of these retail brands has different challenges and different audiences, of course. People shop for fresh salad ingredients differently than a new parka. And they have different expectations about what they buy at the mall versus what they buy via mobile. But this year, more than ever, it’s clear that consumers favor retail brands that inspire them with purpose, wow them with innovations and experiences–and still deliver on all the practical basics.

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