When did you last go on a mission to buy something? Something specific that you had decided you needed. Were you looking for a book to read, heading to a nearest bookstore to browse the shelves? Was it a trip to the local big-box store to stock up on toilet paper and other household odds and ends? Or did you wander around a department store at the local mall looking for something to wear? Our behaviour – consumer behaviour – has changed. Shopping has historically been a search problem: how do we find the products we need need? Today, though, we increasingly buy on impulse, selecting the cheapest – or the best at the most competitive price – from the wealth of products and merchants around the global. The shopping mission is going the way of the dodo. If we see a book we like, then we add it to our list at Amazon or Book Depository and it’s delivered direct to our front door. We’re getting household consumables delivered direct to our homes. And we’re even sourcing clothes online where we can find lower prices and a larger selection. Our behaviour is changing, and the retailers and merchants who don’t adapt are being left behind. A lot of the turmoil we’re seeing in the current economy is likely due to a reconfiguration of business, driven by the changes in consumer behaviour.
We used to engage in a shopping mission, a quest to find the goods we need to solve problems that we know we have. This was a journey that would bring us into contact with quirky in-store marketing displays designed to influence our purchasing decision. Product companies tried to build brand awareness, hoping to create a spark of recognition that, when you found yourselves standing in front of the shelves, would tilt you toward selecting their product over the others. Will be it Heinz tomato sauce? The store’s home brand? Or something gourmet from a boutique manufacturer. Merchants worked hard to ensure that they had the best selection of products they could find – the brands that would pull the customers into their store rather then those of the competition.
Standing before the grocery shelf or clothes rack, we would sort through the brands on offer, trying to find the one that we though to be the best value. This roughly translates into selecting the best quality that we could afford. The only products and information at our disposal was what the retailer chose to present us with, unless we were willing to trudge over to another shop so that we could we see what products it had on offer (and what it was willing to tell us about them). The result was usually a compromise: we’d select the best product we could see in front of us, knowing that it was probably neither the cheapest we might find if we kept searching, nor would it be the best we could find. Finding a better solution to our problem – that pair of jeans with a nicer fit, or the tomato sauce with just a hint of something interesting – was too hard.
The world has changed a lot since then. Firstly, globalisation means that it is now possible to reach around the global, conducting an extensive search for the cheapest, or the best (at the most competitive price). This is as simple as typing a few words into Google or visiting you favourite comparison shopping site. Secondly, quality is a solved problem. Twenty years ago that store brand ice-cream or tomato sauce, or the no-name t-shirt, were obviously inferior to the brand name product. Twenty years is a long time, and manufacturing’s relentless focus on quality management over that time means the cheapest product in the market is virtually indistinguishable from the brand names. They were probably even made in the same ingredients or components in the same factory by the same people.
Consumers no longer need to compromise. With little difference between products and the ability to source them from around the globe, many consumers opt for the cheapest they can find from the global market. Nor are consumers who are willing to pay a premium restricted to selecting from the products on offer locally, reaching around the globe find to the exact product they want at the best possible price.
“Price comparisons would be between first and second, or fourth and fifth. What we’re seeing now is a consumer who shops either on price, or on quality – the number one premium, or the retail price point. All the middle brands have gone.”
Sue Morphet, CEO PacBrands
The balance of power has shifted from retailer to consumer, and the shopping mission is collateral damage. A consumer standing in front of the gaggle of tomato sauces offered by a merchant now has enough information to make an informed decision, and a brand means nothing unless it offers something unique. Consumers are buying the cheapest product, or they are buying the most interesting product (to them). The mass-market brands we grew up with, those labels we trusted because they were reliable, are being demolished, caught in a no man’s land between cheap and premium.
An avid reader wanting a specific book will source it from an online retailer such as Amazon or Book Depository who can offer lower prices and a larger selection, delivered direct to the front door. The time poor professional at the supermarket will often simply pick the cheapest bottle of tomato sauce they can see in front of them, knowing that it will be as good as any of the other. That teenager interested in those green sneakers with black skulls will try on their friends for size and then use an comparison shopping site on the Internet to find the best deal globally. Now that the consumer is in control, and they have the information and services they need at the tip of their smart phone, they are becoming much more impulsive with their approach to buying the goods they want.
The cost of finding the goods and services has plummeted, and consumers are responding by taking a much more opportunistic approach to purchasing. Rather engaging in a search to find goods we need, we’re deciding to buy them impulsively once a need is recognised. Consumers are building relationships with organisations that provide the premium products they desire, or who can be relied on to provide them with the lowest cost items that can be found. Purchases are made opportunistically, built on the shared social connection that has already been established. Customers skip across channels – both real and virtual – learning more about the company’s products and how they can help them. Eventually they realise that there is something they would like, and purchasing is now simply a matter of acknowledging their desire. They might purchase a TV from a company known for bringing cheap but innovative electronics to market, one more focused on putting all the features the customers want into one box, rather than trying to up sell and cross sell. It might be an expensive meal at a restaurant, triggered by the knowledge that a table had just become free for that night. It could the milk man offering to drop off some veg and a steak with the morning milk and bread, guaranteed to arrive before you leave for work. Or it might be that premium computer or tablet with that carefully designed case that you were playing with at your friend’s house.
Retail is reconfiguring, splitting into the cheapest and the best, with a gap appearing the middle. Apple, for example, seems to be the only consumer IT brand still experiencing robust growth and profits, with the majority of PC manufactures struggling to pull slim margins from a declining market. At the other end of the market, Kogan Technologies is rapidly building a profitable business around a low cost, direct to consumer model founded on using a community of low cost manufacturers to rapidly create cheap but functional products target at specific consumer needs. Harvey Norman, a traditional bricks-and-morter retailer, is seeing revenue fall and profits slump.
The new generation of companies – the Apples and Kogans, the Zaras and the explosion of boutique fashion houses – are playing to our new tendency to buy impulsively. They build relationships with their customers, allowing them to skip across channels without purchasing, to reduce the resistance to transacting when the time comes. They avoid sales and regular discounting so tht there’s no reason to hold off a purchase. Some, such as Betabrands, are turning this art into a science, using our desire to be seen as original and our tendency to want to grab bargains when we stumble across them to overcome our reluctance to buy something we can’t touch and feel and accelerate their sales cycle.
A chasm is opening up under the traditional mass-market brands, brands that rely on the shopping mission, while companies which can establish themselves at one of the two ends of the spectrum are seeing robust growth. Companies caught in the middle, companies built around the traditional shopping mission are seeing their margins decline and revenues fall, unable to compete. The shopping mission is dying, and it appears that many companies might die with it.
1. Speech at the Australian Institute of Company Directors lunch in Brisbane, May 26, 2011.↑
2. Eli Greenbla (Aug 30, 2011), Heinz cans Coles, Woolworths, The Sydney Morning Herald↑
3. Charles Arthur (July 2011), Apple profits up 124% year-on-year after record iPhone sales, The Guardian↑
4. Neha Kale (August 2011), Kogan Technologies reports 100% increase in revenue, PowerRetail↑
5. Anhar Khanbhai, Harvey Norman profits fall 20%, Connected Australia↑
6. Amy Wallace (October 2010), Whimsy (and clothes) for sale, The New York Times↑