I feel that it has become increasingly challenging to shop,
contrary to what one may think in a so called modern and effectively efficient
world. For the clich??d fact is true: consumer behavior is changing. In every
company, divisions and individuals are coming up with research and theories and
strategies on how to deal with the evolving consumer prototype.
However, I do
not think that the change is at all alarming. It is a natural, evolutionary
change. In the same way that the earth has become warmer over time, our years
start with the digit 2 instead of 1, and will sequentially continue with 3, 4,
etc., in the same way that writing letters has evolved from slow snail mail to
instantaneous email, or acceptable skirt lengths have gone from ankle length to
barely there, a change in consumer behavior is simply evolutionary.
Here is a vicious circle I have created which encompasses
of a handful of elements that are
changing a consumer’s shopping and product selection experience. This is not an
all encompassing list, but still gives a few tips and interesting learnings for
entrepreneurs and businesses, from the perspective of both a consumer and a
producer, to put it bluntly.
Frugality: I am powerful, yet I am frugal
The DIY (do it yourself) culture is a phenomenon that has
overtaken the ready-to-order and ready-to-purchase behavior. While we used to
prefer having things made and sent to us, somewhere along the lines the stamped
on labor cost has begun to bother us. This, along with the need to express
creative freedom and feel a sense of accomplishment after having completed a
manual task has driven individuals to do things themselves.
The success of IKEA
stores is simply one example, but the flattening frequency of house help in
metropolitan cities of third world countries shows how people are looking more
towards their own powers and natures to completing given tasks. Frugality can
be the other explanation for this, too, as individuals get slightly more sure
of what they want, and how they want it. Businesses beware of the increasing
know-how of consumers, and the increased pickiness, which unfortunately
correlates with the increasing options that consumers face for every product
they wish to purchase.
Efficiency: Factors overriding the Experience Element
For some reason, we have lost the ability to enjoy various
elements of life on a standalone basis. Efficiency has caught on like a buzzing
bug. Why, if you can have a phone that handles email, text messaging, entails a
GPS, can play movies and stream television channels, why have a laptop, a
mobile phone, a portable GPS, a Blu-ray player and a television? It is the
efficiency of one product versus many more, at a reasonable cost advantage and
convenience, perhaps. But does it replace the joy of cuddling up in a couch in
front of a television with a bowl of popcorn? I’m not saying efficiency is a
bad thing, I mean the swiftness of checking in on an airplane (lets ignore the
other associated hassles of traveling these days), or the practicality of an
all inclusive printer/scanner/copier are definitely a sign of creative minds at
However, I think product managers, alongside consumers, have
been taking the efficiency element too much out of reach from the human element. Frugality
again may be the cause here. Why buy six things when one can perform the same
task? From an economic standpoint, it’s probably true. From a convenience one,
depending on your adaptability to the sensitive touch screen phones, the
response will vary.
Consumer Skepticism: Aim, Aim, Aim, Fire
Every brand management course teaches us that consumers are
vulnerable and, plainly put, stupid. But no more. Consumers are much more in
control with what they wish to purchase. They re-evaluate choices much more
accurately, counting the calories and checking the sugar and carb count on food
items, reading the order of ingredients to ensure they aren’t being carried
away; since when ingredients in cosmetics are laid out in order of most to
least, it doesn’t give a strong feeling if water is the first one.
Skepticism has begun to creep into the frame,
with consumers challenging claims and promises that are made by products.
Perhaps this may lead to a rise in third party data and research, in addition
to a consumer’s own swim through the murk. Frugality, DIY, efficiency all feed
into this element of the cycle. Branded products thus must be offering a viable
and sustainable value proposition that is well differentiated from the others
in the flock. Fluffy, unvalidated, unrequired and questionable claims will thus
need to make an exit.
Product Origins: Made with Care
Part of the skepticism comes from the origins, or
processing, of consumer products. Blame it on the paparazzi, who like to
sensationalize any flaw in a manufacturing process, such as the Tylenol recall
due to moldy scents or trace chemicals, or the publicity around manufacturing
of airplane food in infested areas. Or perhaps, blame it on ourselves, as we
have caught on to the anti-bacterial bug, and constantly wash our hands with
anti-bac soap, place a tissue before opening a public restroom door knob or
faucet, or apply alcohol wipes to clean surfaces, or on our hands after a public transit adventure.
Besides the fact
that we are consistently drying our hands out of essential oils and moisture
(and of course, in this marketing driven world, there are products targeted
specifically for drying hands and tearing cuticles), this just cements the fact
that we are taking extra care in what we do, touch, breathe, eat, and overall,
do consciously. Companies and brands are under immense scrutiny from
story-lusting spies to mainstream consumers, who want multiple guarantees as to
why things are made cleanly, clearly, and transparently. It is no longer an
assumption, but a claim that requires repeated validation. So, businesses,
watch out, for even the air particles carry microscopic cameras.
New standards: A Paradigm Shift in Shopping
Now the important element of purchasing power: price.
Discounting is everywhere. Every day our eyes are reading the four letter words
that have become synonymous with shopping: s-a-l-e. It’s no wonder that the
upcoming generations are swift at mathematics, what with the varying
percentages off of full price, with extra percentages off with using specific
cards, or the buy several and get several more free offers, it’s almost like
it’s become a standard of shopping. And that in itself is a risk. Consumers often
enjoy seeing the new trends and designs on models, stars, everywhere, but are
willing to wait until they’re on sale. The sale price has become the new value.
It is a self fulfilling prophecy of a downward spiral. Not to mention a
competitive threat to mainstream retailers. It may not affect the retailers who
support their ‘low prices ‘ always’ claim, but those opting for fashion and
lifestyle do not attend the big box stores either.
It may not affect the
premium brands, who claim exorbitant amounts simply for a small embroidered
logo or metal placket on the edge of a pretty ordinary looking item. But these
cater to a very niche market, less than one percent of the world. What this
paradigm shift in shopping standards is bound to do is affect the mainstream
consumers, the bulging and growing bulk of the world. This is the concern,
which is leading to unnecessarily strange behavior. Is an item really on sale,
could be one reaction, when a simple item seems exorbitantly priced even at 50%
off. Inflated initial prices with sales prices that reflect what a retailer
would actually want, for instance. Which again forms a circular loop of
suspicion as a consumer wonders how an item that is marked $80 can possibly
sell for $5, and starts to wonder about consumption habits and the ethics of a
branded product. Fishy times lay ahead, and brands must stay alert.
Social Media: Lets Tweet!
And when consumers are comparing prices, options,
promotions, another factor that comes into play is the rise of social media.
There are too many elements in a product-consumer interface now. The human
element has blended itself into the gap, and people are closer than ever to
their celebrity endorsers and brand managers, reading their tweets instantly,
which relays a message that these are no longer larger than life perfectly
airbrushed bodies on multi story billboards; these are real people, with real
thoughts, real problems, and real grammatical mishaps that occur when they
type. Whilst this may excite many users, who get to know of what their brands
are conspiring on a daily basis, it poses a risk towards the legitimacy and
efficacy of branded products. Are businesses really getting closer to their
consumers, or are they tweeting a different and perhaps misleading tune?
Moreover, social media is difficult to sustain, definitely not cost effective, and while it
is buzzing around professional circles, its not entirely too new. Combine this
with the frugal consumer and the consumer skepticism, and you have an ongoing
cycle of thoughts glistening with question marks. And while social media isn’t going away, we have always been oblivious to the bubbles of the economy until
Communication & Social Media Research Expert at SKIM, an international
consultancy and marketing research agency, has a background in engineering,
marketing and finance from the University of Pennsylvania, and the Wharton
School and Rotterdam School of Management. Having worked in marketing and
product development at L’Oreal, followed by a stint in management consulting,
he now passionately enjoys the world of social media, and can be found on every
platform with his alias sssourabh. He is a food critic and a fashion writer,
and documents these alongside strategy on his blog called 3FS. He may be reached at email@example.com.
Follow him on @sssourabh.