BEWARE! SLIPPERY SHOPPING

Retailers are a funny lot. One of the latest buzzwords you hear at conferences and in board rooms around the world is ‘friction’. Removing friction from the shopping experience has become another target in the battle against declining sales, so it deserves a little examination.

Perhaps it’s us customers that are the strange species. We will happily browse the magazines or beauty section with no intent of buying or any hint of time pressure. We scan articles on knitting or weddings that we have zero interest in, and we open and sniff bottles of potions we have already decided we can’t buy and wouldn’t want if it was ‘grab a free potion’ day. And yet, faced with a queue that might delay us a couple of minutes we instantly become frustrated. Worse, if a doddery old lady wheels her trolley into our imaginary laser-line to the magazine aisle then we tut silently at the loss of the 0.44 seconds we will never recover. Life’s tiny hurdles are little more than an illusory inconvenience to what are, obviously, our meaningful and purposeful lives.

The love affair with our phones also illustrates how quickly we become bored or frustrated when the world around us refuses to work in perfect, synchronised harmony to our own personal schedule. When driving, every traffic light or junction is another chance to check our phones, so that a miniscule delay becomes useful to us in some small, pathetic way. As we watch the train pull into the station, on time, there are still a handful of microseconds being wasted here: enough time to quickly check our Facebook page.

Now retailers who have studied our peculiar behaviour for many decades have decided to remove as many of these unnecessary micro-hurdles as possible from the in-store shopping experience, lest we give up and go the Amazon way. But as is so often the case, they have completely misunderstood us.

Not long ago the slipperiest, most friction-free retail model was the supermarket. Before the age of the smartphone we would venture out in the car, drive to the store, pick up a trolley, push the trolley up and down every aisle, load it up with all our weekly needs, unload it at the checkout, pack it into bags, load it back into the trolley, unload it into the car, return the trolley to the trolley bay, drive home, unload car and then store it all neatly at home…until next week. It couldn’t have been simpler! I can already hear my unborn grandchildren begging me to ‘tell us again how you used to buy food Granddad!’. So, in response to the shift in having stuff delivered, our once easy-to-shop spaces are desperately attempting to lubricate their stores further, concentrating primarily on new payment technologies.

Now the camera, in this little documentary I’m making for you, cuts to a fresh food market. Here in the US, markets have increased threefold in number since the financial crash of 2008, but just watch how ridiculously high friction the shopping experience is. Each stall has a queue, and an undignified one at that. The doddery old lady may not have a trolley but she’s been fumbling in her purse at the front of the line for what must be ten minutes now. Your bags are heavy and awkward but still you manage to smile in response to the cheery verbal arithmetic. What a contrast to the dulcet chime that is ‘unexpected item in the bagging area!’

The problem with the supermarket model, within which I include an entire gamut of mid market self-service brands across category, is that it strips away so much of the social aspect of retail, so that even eye contact in the aisles is deemed unacceptable. Retailers have worked hard honing and polishing the cogs of their machines in order that they shine bright beneath the fluorescent lights, but they overlooked the very key to being human, the bit that makes our three score years and ten worthwhile. We are a deeply and innately social species and when we glance at Facebook while the train doors open it’s because we are desperate to connect. At the traffic lights we click on our email to see if anyone wants us, anyone…an awkward client will do. So, in a space deprived of social contact perhaps it’s the magazine aisle and the beauty section that most engages us and offers a little respite from the drudgery of the weekly trawl. Imagine, if you will, a new fresh food market concept, unmanned and where you can help yourself to everything before you simply ‘tap and go’. It wouldn’t last a fortnight.


Apologies for rambling, but last week I was in Warsaw where I visited Hala Mirowska, the big, central fresh food market. Loitering at the entrance was an old man waving a small bag of runner beans, just enough for a couple of servings at most, which could have been mine for a few measly Zloty. That evening I asked my host if the old are really that poor in Warsaw, and she explained that although they may not have it easy, they ‘hang around the market for something to do, to feel involved.’ After all, the market was the centre of the community for many millennia, until big box retail came along. The good news is that Hala Mirowska is currently undergoing major renovations as they strip out the hideous shop units, remove the supermarket and reopen it as a traditional grand market hall once again.

Surely, the visceral draw to belong to a community is one of the reasons the unemployed visit the doctor so many more times a year than those in work. It’s not that they’re inherently more sick, so it’s more likely they just crave social contact, particularly in a retail landscape made up of discounters and fast food chains.

My warning comes too late, of course. We’ve already arrived at the retail crossroads. If you want stuff then turn left for the internet which is full of it; and what’s more it might well be delivered within the hour. But if you want social contact, proof that you’re not alone on this planet and would perhaps feel reassured by a light, fleeting exchange with a fellow inhabitant, then turn right for the shops. Shops are only for social needs now, everything else is waiting in a brown parcel by your front door. It’s not nuanced, complicated or category specific at all. The brutal, binary simplicity of this can be hard to swallow for professional retailers who have been oiling their machines for half a century, but it’s how it is now. Just ask your grandchildren.

Join me on Twitter for daily retail rants @retailfuturist and read more of my blogs here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Sep 27, 2016   Brand, discount, Food, Retail, shopping, technology, Uncategorized   1 Comment   Read More

DISCOUNTING, INCENTIVES & THE HUNT FOR BIN LADEN


I read recently that in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden the US Government offered a reward of twenty five million dollars, to the good people of Pakistan and Afghanistan, for information as to his whereabouts. There were no takers. After months of debate in Congress they finally came up with a solution: to double the reward to fifty million dollars. There were still no takers. It’s clear the US Government needs a lesson in how incentives work.

A thousand years ago, when I was a freckle-faced newbie at my first London design agency, I remember meeting with our in-house copywriter to discuss a client promotion we were working on. Ivan was a gentle and avuncular chain smoker and his rich, filterless Camel voice explained to me that a jackpot of say, one hundred thousand pounds would attract fifty thousand entries, but that a prize of a red convertible sports car (worth less than a quarter of that) could expect to attract twice as many entries. Experience had taught him that incentives are much more powerful when they are tangible, when they light up our imaginations. Numbers alone are never as effective.

Consider the scam emails that offer vast sums of money following the death of someone with a similar family name. If the bait was say, a riverside house overlooking the Niger, then maybe, just maybe, it would be more believable that Uncle Adebambo had bequeathed it as he lay on his death bed. Instead they persist with offers of multi millions of dollars, making it ever more improbable and preposterous. (Perhaps there’s a consultancy role for me here?)



Just as incentives need not be large to shift behaviour then the same is true for disincentives. Over-charge me by one dollar for a bottle of water and I’ll go elsewhere. The hotel mini-bar industry, for example, is a great lesson in how to ensure all your customers leave feeling ripped off. It’s become a cultural joke that we’d have to be crazy drunk before we dared reach into the damn thing. And we mostly are, of course.

Incentivising is a psychological game and discounting, whilst seemingly straightforward, is actually a highly nuanced area. For instance, ‘Buy One, Get One Free’ may work brilliantly for washing powder or baked beans but in fashion it looks like barrel scraping. Two shirts for the price of one suggests these aren’t the shirts you should be wearing. In this post-crash, post-apocalypse climate we want THE product (shirt, coffee, car) not A. We want our shirts to feel special. As we slip it on we need to know that we made the right choice, that we are a truly discerning customer who wears THE shirt, not just any old shirt. We even look for that special THE reassurance when we choose our morning coffee for god’s sake. Most of us are much less vain and demanding when it comes to baked beans.


Accessibility versus inaccessibility is a game of ‘push me, pull you’ to achieve the right balance. Retailers spend millions trying to get us to choose their product over a competitor’s. They invest in flagship stores and window displays to outshine their neighbours. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising campaigns to build product awareness and promotions to encourage us to shop with them; they line their walls with beautifully lit displays…and yet the truth is that the more accessible something is, the less we want it. Just imagine that Louis Vuitton strikes a deal with Walmart and starts selling its iconic handbags half price at the checkout. (I know this parallel universe isn’t easy to slip into, but there are brands that have done worse) For the first week or so they would shift an awful lot of handbags, but sooner or later we’d realise that we don’t desire them like we once did and within a matter of a few weeks Louis Vuitton, and all it stood for, would be finished. They’re exactly the same, beautiful bags, remember, but now they are completely drained of the value and respect we projected onto them.

That’s because a product is so much more than just a product. Buy it from a glamorous flagship on a sunny Saturday and it’s imbued with flagship flavour forever. Buy it from a dodgy geezer off the back of a truck on a wet Wednesday in Hull and that too will stay attached to it (even if you do feel savvy that you knew where to find the truck). Every time you open the wardrobe it will remind you of how it came into your life. No one else will know of course and so now it also carries with it an air of deceit!


Discounting too is similarly paradoxical, alluring though it is to both customer and retailer, it can do serious, long term but invisible damage to a brand. When I see something reduced by 50% I instantly feel I want it half as much as I did previously. Even if it was something I’d had my eye on, the thrill of the discount must be offset against the disappointment that it has become that much more accessible. And if it’s a luxury item then it raises lots of questions such as ‘What’s wrong with it? Why can’t they sell it? How much was the original mark up?’ etc etc. In an instant, the unattainable has become attainable, the dream has evaporated and therefore, the product is devalued. It’s like Groucho’s ‘I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me’ conundrum. Tricky things customers.

If brands have achieved anything by investing in the meaning and cache that transforms their products into desirable non-commodities, then surely a sale has to puncture that, temporarily at least. Aspiration, certainly in luxury goods, is a brand’s very essence. To erode that, even gently, is to erode the nucleus of its structure.

That is not to say a sale, a short and finite period of discounting, is not a respectable way of driving sales. Limiting the damage in customers’ minds is the key. End of season sales make perfect sense but sale posters that perennially plaster the windows of furniture stores, for example, simply destroy any credibility that the products were ever meant to be full price. Equally, at sale time customers get into ‘sale mode’ and won’t even consider a store that refuses to join the party. So it does make sense for luxury or premium brands to join the fun… so long as it’s carefully managed in a considered and contained way. And just like the ridiculous multi million dollar offers the email scammers make, discounts of 70% and 80% appear just as ludicrous. It’s advertising that they’re either going bust or have been ripping us off previously; neither of which are particularly strategic messages.

Customers (that’s us by the way) aren’t stupid. We can smell desperation and death within a hundred yards of a shop window and no one wants either of those as a brand value. Talking of which I just popped into see how Hollister on Fifth Avenue was looking these days. Oh dear god!

So, the next time the US Government considers putting a multi million dollar bounty on the head of an international terrorist, maybe it should offer a bright red, convertible Mustang instead.


Join me on Twitter for daily retail rants @retailfuturist and read more of my blogs here:  andcom.uk9.fcomet.com/blog/

  Howard Saunders   Feb 01, 2016   Brand, discount, incentives, Retail, sales, shopping, Uncategorized   0 Comment   Read More