Friday, October 2, 2009

Consumer insights; I don’t know how to make the right choice!

Whenever I address any audience with regard to Retail - I am fond of making a statement which inevitably provokes a reaction of shock and disbelief - the statement being - that most of us are not qualified to purchase products. This is not an off the cuff remark, but based on my customer experiences over the years across product categories. Some examples:

  • I have seen ladies sift through rice and hold it up and sniff at it. Most cases when I have asked, they could not tell what exactly they were looking for! This is not an issue of not being able to articulate. This is simply a habit.

  • Even today when one buys vegetables which are not packed, there would be a significant number of ladies fingers which have been mutilated and left behind! Again habit based on an assumption that only those whose tips snap away sharply are tender and worth buying. This particular habit is comical and irritating in equal parts when one sees a customer busily snapping away at the ladies finger and then tossing a few aside for others. I have checked some of the ladies fingers which have been so disdainfully rejected, only to find that they are as good as the others.

  • Customers purchasing furniture in many cases tend to knock on the wooden surface as if it was an occult material that would yield up secrets. These same customers would be completely lost when asked about MDF. The extent of their information is that the furniture seems to be solid (Usually meaning, made of wood) or otherwise (Which means, it is usually particle board)
    And so on and on.
The reality of the matter is that we tend to get very little information with regard to the products we purchase. We are exposed to a lot of information which are usually claims. However, we rarely get unbiased, objective information that would enable us to make a good purchase decision.

In many cases like the rice and ladies finger example our purchase is driven by ritualistic behaviour which is not understood and therefore not questioned.

Although, the extent of such uninformed buying depends on category, the most vulnerable is grocery - simply because in the case of most other product categories like electronics or apparel there is a benchmark in terms of various brands. In fact my view is that the concept of brands is itself largely driven by this ignorance and therefore the consumer needs to be reassured.

How does this influence retail?

Any retailer who understands this and follows a practice of doing things which would help address, allay and comfort the customer will be ahead of the game.

An obvious action point is to accept replacements and returns as mentioned in the earlier post. The more enduring step would be to engage the customer and educate the customer.

It could be simple things like circulating small pamphlets or leaflets about the product, signage or VM in the store or ideally by organising interactions with customers which would engage and educate the customers.

I have chosen to post this topic on Gandhi Jayanthi because there is a connection. His quotation about customer service (Customer is the most important visitor on our premises and so on) which is often bandied about can actually lead to customer disservice if not understood well. If one understands and internalises the universal truth of that statement then there starts an inherent conflict. We assume important people to be informed and knowledgeable, which is not the case with most shoppers. Hence, there is a dilema and retailers often swing to either extremes of becoming patronising/ condescending or becoming servile assuming that the customer knows best.

The ideal approach in today's context would be to internalise the statement of Mahatma Gandhi and execute it keeping in mind the customer insight mentioned above in this post.


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