A Troubling Mega Trend: Our ‘Transactional’ Lifestyle
By Ken Miller and Jim Warner
Much has been written about the fundamental lifestyle changes taking place these days and their root causes. For the sake of context, let’s reel off the top few:
• Consumers’ lives (kids and adults) are complex, time-starved and stressful.
• Technology is changing the way we live our daily lives and, ideally, making us more productive and efficient.
• Media messages are relentless, ubiquitous and intrusive in their efforts to compel us to consume.
There. That was simple. Or was it? Are these trends isolated in their impact, to be addressed by marketers as independent phenomenon worthy of individual solutions? Or are they part of a diabolical mega-trend that links them in a way that we have yet to even acknowledge, never mind truly understand?
No, the authors are not consumed by a conspiracy theory. We just think that all of these seemingly fractionalized trends are beginning to add up to something that will (if it hasn’t happened already) fundamentally alter our way of life, our view of the world and how we interact with others. Perhaps we’re being a bit dramatic, you say?
We think not. A serendipitous interaction between these seemingly independent trends, forceful in their own right, is creating something cumulative and tsunami-like. It’s the “uber-trend”—we call it the Transactional Lifestyle, where time, technology and the media have reduced our lives to a series of minute “transactions.” Gone is the emotion, the experience, the sheer joy of everyday tasks.
Now before you’re convinced that the authors are heading in a downward spiral, let us say that there’s hope. Whenever things get dire, human nature finds a way to backlash and reverse course. We see it beginning to happen already.
And while it may sound disingenuous, we believe consumer products manufacturers can do their part to fuel the knee-jerk response to the Transactional Lifestyle. But that’s only if they are able to recognize the higher-order implications of the trend rather than just the goal of turning out the next “on-the-go” snack container. We’re not saying that package structure alone can reverse the transactional lifestyle. But it can help soothe the consumer psyche by delivering a momentary respite from our next punishing voice-response exposure.
Before we can do that, though, we must first recognize how we got here.
Running in cycles
Convenience has become the Holy Grail because, somewhere along the line, we ran out of time and reduced every interaction to a transaction.
Meal time, for example, has blurred with snack time, in both occasion and food content. The idea of enjoying food has been replaced by one of refueling. As one consumer in our research said, “I just need to get it down and move on”.
We also dispose of everything. And find nearly everything to be disposable. As technology advances and cheapens, we’re trained to believe in rapid obsolescence.  So we throw away broken DVD players because we can’t wait for them to be fixed; we find a new computer that much more attractive when the old one gets dusty; and when a battery-powered disposable razor or toothbrush quits, we fire up another without losing a beat.
Less time also translates into more focused shopping. Mass merchandisers grew out of consumers’ need to get it all done in one place. Lower prices may create preference, but the real need is to make one stop, push one cart and pay one time.
So what happened to the shopping experience we once loved? It now revolves around what we call the “buyer boredom” cycle. Mass merchandisers reward consumers for their shopping with time- and cost-savings, which trains them to buy on price. That, in turn, dampens innovation because manufacturers can’t afford to introduce truly new products. So they spawn mundane line extensions that, ultimately, confuse and distract shoppers. As a result, consumers become detached and more robotic in their shopping behavior. Their emotional bonds with products dissipate, reducing them to pure transactional shoppers.
We’ve become a society of buying machines. The media provoke us, distract us and compel us to buy the next lifestyle upgrade, destined for obsolescence the moment we figure out how to use it. We quickly pull the trigger on products that promise instant gratification in taste, self image and the pure chemical brain rush of buying something—NOW!
Consumers have lost the emotional bond they seek from the products they buy. Entire categories are commoditized, and many products are without a seeming reason for being. Pleasure is in the transaction itself, rather than in the reward of meeting an actual functional need with a product that works.
When a product comes along that truly inspires and delights, we’re surprised. But, on some level, we’re still disappointed. That’s because we have no rational justification for the purchase. After all, what we really wanted was the momentary thrill of the transaction.
We hear that consumers are spending more on high-end products, but it’s not because they have more money. It’s that they are struggling to find a satisfying experience amid their transaction-riddled lives. They’re looking for something that endures, or allows them to reward themselves, or makes them feel special and unique.
Consider two extremes on opposite ends of the price spectrum: the tea revolution and the vacuum invasion.
The super-premium tea business is exploding, as consumers enjoy what is a captivating ritual rooted in old-world philosophy—one that builds contentment and perspective in a moment reserved just for them. Emerging research about the health effects of tea only reinforces the idea of taking time for reflection.
On the other end of the experience spectrum is the Dyson vacuum cleaner. The vacuum just seems to work better, for apparent and convincing reasons. That big yellow trackball that guides the machine looks like it solves a real problem. I get it. And, I want it. Not just because it’s expensive and the latest techno-toy, but because it promises to make a pleasant, novel experience out of drudgery. Now, cleaning is something I might actually talk about fondly with others, rather than look at as a mind-numbing transaction I want to suppress from memory.  
The technology wave has taught us that efficiency and productivity are the most noble of pursuits. We buy into this because, with technology as an enabler, we can, in fact, meet our own expectations for doing more, faster. We can’t lose 15 pounds or learn French, but we can book travel and buy a car in a literal flash of light. And we love the feeling of accomplishment.
But technology has another side. We can become near experts in anything we choose. We can research, review, reply. We can join global communities, or find dates in our own neighborhoods. In doing so, however, we’ve figured out how to transactionalize human interaction. We avoid the art and process of conversation, and just react to light in the form of words.
Think about all the human interactions that have been reduced to transactions devoid of feeling, experience and compassion. It all started with the ATM. Gone are the smiling tellers asking what else they can do after changing your $100 bill.
But the backlash is beginning. For example, some branch banks in New York are decorated like country clubs. They invite you to sit, have coffee and change your big bills. These banks recognize that commoditization has gone too far. And consumers recognize the difference.
So what can consumer products manufacturers do to capitalize on the growing wave of dissatisfaction consumers have with their transactional lifestyles? And more to the point of this column, how can package structure innovation help?
Here are a few ways in which we can fuel the anti-transactional fire:
Think about how your product can instill habit in its use. Habit is comforting and stress reducing, because people feel good about routine. It generates the positive reinforcement of a tangible, familiar and repeatable outcome on each occasion.
Consider the value of simplicity. Rethink your product to deliver benefits instantly, which aligns with the consumer need for immediate gratification. The elegant simplicity of a product can also impart an unexpected and positive usage experience. This could translate into a product that is simple and intuitive to activate. Or, it could mean a more pure, elegant design with fewer articulating parts.
Try a limited edition. In some categories, the use of special editions has successfully built emotional bonds with consumers. Limited-time flavors or packaging give consumers something to look for in the store, and are inherently new and newsworthy. Consumers feel you are doing something special just for them.
Consider how your product might offer “connectedness”. Consumers want to know they are part of an inner circle where they can share impressions with like-minded people. Where there may be various ways to use a product, they can experience personal freedom and express identity, but also learn and get support from others.
Yes, these ideas are rather esoteric. But so is the transactional lifestyle challenge we all face. Consumer products manufacturers could strike a rare win-win if they deliver products that help restore a sense of humanity to people’s lives. Products that pull people from the transactional thrill of buying to the experiential reward of using will build an emotional bond and earn loyalty. From there, greater profitability (and a higher quality of life) may be only a transaction away. BP
Jim Warner and Ken Miller are Managing Partners at One80 Design, a product and package innovation firm in New York City. Jim lends creative concept development and implementation for client programs. Ken focuses on research methodology and marketing strategy to provide focused design direction for the creative teams. Contact Jim and Ken at 212.268.1801 or visit www.one80design.com.