Overcoming ‘Buyer Boredom’ in the Detached Consumer

by Ken Miller and Jim Warner
Consumers are bored with the products they buy. From food to household to HBA, they see no differentiation.
Packaging drives perceptions at the point of sale, yet consumers face a numbing sameness as category after category resembles huge, vague blocks of similar forms, materials and promised benefits. The most frustrating aspect of this malaise is that consumers love to try products that are truly new. They just don’t see very many.
What’s going on in stores, brand owners’ conference rooms and consumers’ lives that have lead to paralyzing “Buyer Boredom?” Here’s the “cause-and-effect” storyline.
The ‘Detached Consumer’
We all know that consumers lead very hectic, time-starved lives. As a result, they are cleaning and cooking less. These activities, and buying the products that serve them, have become low-involvement, low-priority events. Shopping has become much less an emotion-connected, enjoyable experience. It’s much more of a mindless transaction where consumers operate with short attention spans and want to complete their shopping at fewer stores.
An interesting fallout of this trend is a move to what has been termed “mass luxury.” For higher priority products, consumers are willing to spend more for a better “experience” in using the product. They appreciate a touch of indulgence, either as a moment of relaxation or as a reward.
Retailer as Victor and Victim
Retailers, as a whole, contribute to consumer malaise. As consumers fall into “transactional shopping,” they fuel the growth of mass merchandisers and club stores. These retailers exist to provide one-stop shopping for as many items as possible at the lowest conceivable price.
At the same time, they have let brand owners control their shelf space. That promotes a commodity-like look to the store and a bland shopping experience. And, in turn, erodes loyalty to retailers. The emotional connection that retailers once coveted has been lost.
The growth of private-label goods is the retailers’ reaction to this syndrome. In an effort to take back the shelf and win consumer loyalty, they focus on producing parity products at a lower price. This, of course, fuels the commodity presentation of goods in stores even more, driving value rather than differentiation. And that teaches grocery store shoppers to head for the club stores.
Retailers are getting a little smarter, though. At Kroger, you’ll see three different store brand tiers: FMV (Fred Meyer Value) is the “most economical product on the shelf,” the Kroger brand is “equal or better to the leading national brands” and Private Selection “represents the best Kroger offers…life’s little pleasures.”
While the range of offerings is an attempt to win back shopper loyalty, the Private Selection line goes one step further. It creates that emotional attachment based on an indulgent experience. Shopping visits have declined sharply at grocery stores, and these chains are fighting for survival. In Europe, half of all products in certain venues are store brands. There, stores decide what to put on their shelves. As a result, they can control the shopping experience and build stronger relationships with consumers.
As another example, Target Stores has done an exceptional job of recognizing what value consumers want. Price shopping may be one rational justification for going to Target. But it’s the occasionally exciting product and package design, plus a nicer shopping experience, that adds up to that elusive emotional bond.
CPGs Reap What They Sow
Now that manufacturers have wrenched some power from the retailer and have a say in what goes on at the shelf, what have they chosen to do with it? They weigh it down with line extensions posing as “new” products.
Consumers know better. They see the shelf lined with “me-too” products, all in the same packaging, with the same colors, textures and promised benefits. Some of these benefits are so narrowly differentiated and communicated that they are imperceptible to the fast-moving consumer who has dozens of items to select on their shopping trip.
Too many choices confuse consumers, building resentment.
Why do consumer packaged goods marketers rely on line extensions rather than offering enticing new products? Suffice it to say that line extensions are relatively inexpensive to make and promote.
Marketers rationalize them as part of a sophisticated segmentation strategy and a belief in minimizing the risk of pseudo-new products.
On one level, consumers see through this. On another, their eyes just glaze over.
This dynamic is compounded by marketers’ recent bias toward in-store promotion rather than brand-building through advertising. This puts more responsibility on packaging to sell at the point of sale. It also teaches consumers to buy on price.
Breaking the Buyer Boredom spiral
If you manage a brand for a consumer products manufacturer, what do you do in the face of this seemingly inescapable conundrum?
We present three directions worth considering. Each capitalizes on where the consumer is going (and not going) these days.
If you manage a brand in an increasingly low-priority, low-involvement category, change how consumers perceive your brand. Think about ways to infuse a touch of luxury, indulgence or “specialness” into the experience of using your product.
Package structure can help deliver that sought-after benefit, and it can certainly help communicate distinction at the point of sale. This can build the elusive emotional bond that consumers tell us they are looking for.
Consider texture, scent and shape as tools to engage consumers.
Consider a package structure “platform” that efficiently offers distinction across line extensions. Make it easier for consumers to find what they want.
The authors, Ken Miller and Jim Warner, are the Managing Partners at One80 Design, New York City, a package structure innovation and design firm. Contact them at 212.268.1801 or ken@one80design.com or jim@one80design.com