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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Lost in the Supermarket

Day 21::Fishbowl originally uploaded by Meredith Farmer. The caption of the photo includes: "I'm all lost in the supermarket, I can no longer shop happily, I came in here for that special offer, A guaranteed personality"

Well, A Transcultural Perspective on the Retail Experience and Musings on Choice, Culture and The Retail Experience have hit a nerve.... One that carries universal relevance as we come across too many situations that offer often infinite choices. Some categories are worse than others: in this guest post, Reshma Anand from The Qualitative Research Blog uses the supermarket as the backdrop for her observations.

I first met Reshma through Bathroom Blogfest '06 and have developed a great respect for her ability to critically observe and then take a concept away from its paradigms to suggest a new approach. In this case: having the product FIND the consumer.

Reshma describes herself as a freelance qualitative researcher and hypnotherapist, serious about uncovering the truth behind motivations. Originally from India, she has lived in Wales (Cardiff), and Ireland (Kilkenny), and can currently be found in London. As she explains, "this kind of nomadic lifestyle has put me in a constant 'comparison mode'... And, being a qualitative researcher, I can't help but observe my own behaviour and whatever is happening around me. Trying to find patterns and connections has now become an habit."
Having grown up in a different country, it was natural to feel surprised, confused and sometimes shocked and even amused while getting acquainted with everyday products and brands in a new retail environment. The differences between home country (India) and the new locale (UK) were magnified in my mind which I attributed to the varying maturity of the two economies which has an obvious bearing on the retail environment. Until I read this post by ¡Hola! Oi! Hi! 's Katia (a Brazilian living in the US) who gives her transcultural marketing perspective on making everyday consumption choices and how those are influenced by her experiences in her home country. She goes to say….

Since I’ve been living in the US, I’ve gotten used to and enjoy the many choices the market offers, but I still shop pretty much the way I did back home: I simplify my life by opting not to choose and just pick what I really need or can afford.

Then there is Blog Til You Drop's Laurence (originally from France and now lives in the UK) who talks about finding French products on the shelves of British supermarkets and how sometimes too much choice can get in the way of making a purchase decision.

I realized after reading these accounts that the bewilderment I faced was not only on account of the obvious differences in the retail environments / retails formats (the dominant mode of retail in India until a couple of years ago was neighborhood grocers, the mom and pop store variety) or the scale of choice available in the home country. It was:

A) A function of being in a foreign environment – a factor that would affect me as much as it would affect any other outsider. Whether that outsider was from a developing retail market or a mature one was immaterial. As C.B. rightly points out that ‘foreign-ness can even occur at home’ &

B) A result of too much choice and having to navigate through the deluge to zero-in on the desired purchase.

As we acclimatize ourselves to a foreign market there are work-arounds we find sometimes consciously and may a times subconsciously. Triggers that aid the adoption of new products / brands can be cues for marketers aiming to win over a new audience.

The search for the right ingredient
Food choices and habits do not change easily and when in a new market people try to find ingredients close to the ones they used back home. Finding a perfect substitute is not always possible and easy. Once abroad, people experiment with local produce and exchange tips with friends on near perfect substitutes they discover. For instance, I don’t know what ricotta cheese or sour cream is locally used for, though I know some Indians abroad use a combination of the two to create a substitute for ‘sour yoghurt’ – yoghurt in India acquires a tartness that any diary product would in a warm climate. The stages before these perfect discoveries are most frustrating, since not always do we have friends handy to share such information.

Could we have the product find the consumer instead of the other way around?
I remember walking into a supermarket in Bangalore, India on one occasion and encountering an American food festival. The aisles sported American flags along with peanut butter jars, American corn, Oreo cookies and such like. Too conspicuous to be missed.

Supermarkets in the west have aisles dedicated to foreign foods. Imagine having an Indian or a French food festival in one of those aisles. It would not be difficult for a supermarket to track what local brands / products are being picked up by the Indians or French regularly. Overlay this information with what or how it is used. Placements of these products close to the foreign food aisles along with flyers that mention their adapted use in ethnic cuisines can do the trick (think ricotta in Indian cuisine).

Supermarkets already do this though right now I have only seen such efforts targeted at the native audience. Extending this to a foreign clientele cuts down the process of trail and error for the consumer while the marketer finds a new audience for his product.

Could price sensitivity be a barrier in adopting new products?
While conversing with a friend yesterday, I asked her how she made her choices and like most of us she moved from the known and familiar terrain, slowly into the new and unfamiliar. The transition into the new was often triggered by a price-off. I could relate to that experience. I am a non-experimental shopper by and large and my eyes stayed focused strictly on pre-decided products though one thing that never fails to catch my attention is when I see a ‘yellow price slip’ from the corner of my eye suggesting a price cut. Indians coming abroad are by and large price sensitive partly because they use the home currency to benchmark rates against, but prices-off are universally effective in initiating consumers to new brands. Since a price-off brings down the risk associated with experimentation.

These are just some of the work arounds. I am sure there are more and it would be interesting to hear and read about those.

The issue with adapting to a foreign environment is as true of consumers as it is with marketers entering a new market. The retail landscape in India is abuzz with activity as modern format retail outlets start to make their presence felt and some foreign players (e.g., Wal-Mart) emerging on the scene. In their quest to woo the elusive consumer some of these new generation grocery chains are taking lessons from the traditional retailers while the latter are morphing themselves to keep pace with the competition.

More on that next in The Qualitative Research Blog.
Although some may think that supermarket issues have little to do with other retail experiences, I disagree. Supermarkets represent extreme examples of what we encounter in retail environments... Do product presentations make sense to a consumer coming in with a 'foreign' [i.e., from outside of your industry or geography] perspective or are they as overwhelming as that of a supermarket? In a comment to Blog Til You Drop's post titled Too Much Noise, I mentioned how oblivious I am to many new products and brand extensions. They just don't connect. However, if I read about them in a business magazine [i.e., they are taken out of their competitive element], I begin to consider them and evaluate them as a source of new benefit to me. In one sense, through that business case write-up, the product finds me.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

"Sorry pumpkin" - The LabCorp Saga Continues

The Ugliest Pumpkin originally uploaded by Yemenia.
If you remember from Hall of Shame Inductee: LabCorp, I had a not-so-good customer experience with my daughter right before the New Year.

Bruce Friedman at LabSoftNews picked up the story in Customer Criticises LabCorp for Bad Blood Drawing Experience.

Jan. 15th I received an email from Pamela Sherry, Senior Vice President Corporate Communications at LabCorp, saying "I saw the blog and the concerns it noted, and would very much like to check into the service at the LabCorp site you mentioned in the blog. Is it possible to forward to me the address of the site?"

I responded back with general information about the location [I was traveling], and heard nothing further.

Well, I guess someone checked into the service at that site because the next thing I know I receive the following anonymous comment:

"Sorry pumpkin, actually not supose to say first and last names. Hippa Violation! It's a cinch you don't know anything about what goes on behind those walls and you have total and complete tunnel vision, I would like to say I am sorry about your experience but since you make to attempt to understand what other people may be going through, I see no reason to give you any sympathy at all. By the way did I say whinner?"

Although taken aback at first, I'm grateful that this LabCorp employee took the time to comment. It gives me the opportunity to address his/her points and also touch on the bigger picture that LabCorp, in following up, either didn't get or didn't communicate effectively [to 'Sorry pumpkin'].

By the way, this LabCorp facility reminds me of how the NJ Department of Motor Vehicles used to operate: people would come in, take a number, and sit for 2 or 3 or 4 hours until their number was called [remember BeetleJuice?]. DMV employees were NOT nice about that either. There was a machinery at work that had nothing to do with the human beings it serviced. Now, I walk out of my local Motor Vehicles Office 7 minutes after walking in; everyone treats me professionally and respectfully and I have even been offered to have my picture retaken 3 times. How's that for service?

Getting back to my note from 'Sorry pumpkin' - my one reply from LabCorp. It indicates to me that LabCorp assumed they had an easy situation to fix: be nicer or do better. Most certainly not! It's an infrastructure problem, not a "tell your employees to be nicer to the customer" problem. Which clearly upset 'Sorry pumpkin'... when s/he was told that.

Let's start with waiting time. I experienced a 2 hour wait. The woman next to me, a regular, stated that 2 hours is the norm whenever she comes. A 2 hour wait is simply NOT acceptable, especially when a good number of the tests involve a patient producing their own specimen. I accept that it takes longer when the phlebotomist [thanks, Bruce!] must draw blood, but we're still talking minutes not hours.

So, what is the root cause of a standard 2 hour wait time? That's what LabCorp needs to get to the bottom of. Are more people needed? Do triage systems need to be implemented? Then make it so. But, 2 hours are neither acceptable nor happy solutions. ['Sorry pumpkin' and LabCorp may believe LabCorp has to fill the waiting room 'hopper' with a 2 to 3 hour supply of people just to be efficient. The NJ Department of Motor Vehicles proves you don't!]

'Sorry pumpkin' brings up accepted LabCorp procedure for addressing people. If it is a "hippa violation" to use both first and last names, then use an honorific. "Mr." or "Ms." and a last name work quite well. In fact, that conveys a great deal more respect than belting out a first name - that people didn't recognize as theirs - from the inner sanctum of an office area. First names are appropriate in a more intimate setting [i.e., 1:1 or at most with 3-4 people present] when there is opportunity to develop a relationship.

Which brings up the layout of the office. If LabCorp can't hire enough people to dedicate someone to the waiting room window to process people, then it should create another system so employees aren't forced to belt out names from an unseen area to keep the system moving. Do work spaces need to be rearranged?

No, I don't know what goes on behind the LabCorp walls, and I don't really want to know. I'm sure that a lot of dedication and hard work and professionalism are taking place, but I'm also sure from 'Sorry pumpkin's' note that a broken system is at work: the folks behind those walls have it way worse than the customers in the waiting room. 'Sorry pumpkin' is not a happy employee.

If LabCorp looks through the eyes of its consumer, it cannot in complete honesty consider this experience impressive or worth holding up to the world as the end all and be all for obtaining urine and blood tests - something that I used to be able to do in my doctor's office, with familiar people, in the time that I normally spend with the doctor for a routine physical [i.e., within 40 minutes and lots of other things happening at the same time]. I particularly sympathize with all of those other folks - many of them sick and elderly - who must wait 2 [or more!] hours of their lives for every test they have to take in a LabCorp facility. Is that acceptable? I say not.

So what to tell LabCorp? More important than anything else, build an infrastructure that allows employees to service customers in a reasonable and humane way and don't ask them to put a polite and caring face on the failure to do so. Maybe that does mean more employees, maybe it will be less efficient. OR, maybe not. But the process has to be designed to put that customer experience first, not last. Only then can the other, also important issues in employee/customer interaction be addressed. If this is not done, people will begin to resist going to a LabCorp facility. Certainly, I will. And, any competitor who offers a better [and SHORTER] experience will eat LabCorp's lunch.

If done correctly, that infrastructure will foster employee loyalty. It can be done. Consider these perspectives from John Moore at Brand Autopsy relating to employee loyalty.

+ In Reichheld on Employee Loyalty, John extracts this quote from his book TRIBAL KNOWLEDGE (Kaplan, 2006):

"There is no better spokesperson for a company, product, and brand than someone who is happy with his job and respected by his employer and peers. A happy employee will, in turn, make customers happy."
+ From TRUE BELIEVERS article abstract referring to an article titled "TRUE BELIEVERS: Passionate Customers can Transform your Company" by Amy Barrett from the Winter 2006 edition of Business Week’s SMALL BIZ supplemental magazine. Here is the quote I found relevant:

"You can't create [customer] loyalty if your employees aren't putting your customers' needs front and center. Think long and hard about how you want customers to be treated, and then set firm rules about who you'll hire to work with them. Continuous training of employees is crucial to keeping them focused on customers."

Let's be clear on who is to blame [as long as we're assigning blame]. However comical 'Sorry pumpkin''s response, s/he IS NOT TO BLAME. 'Sorry pumpkin' is in an impossible situation - provided with inadequate tools to accomplish the task at hand. So, again, Shame on LabCorp for creating an evironment so bad that 'Sorry pumpkin' has nowhere else to turn than to his/her customers to express frustration. LabCorp executives should go be their own customer! Be referred for a legitimate reason by a physician and go experience the process. Maybe then will LabCorp get the big picture!

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Musings on Choice, Culture and the Retail Experience

The lost world originally uploaded by Brunoat.
These recent postings about choice - Are There Too Many Choices? & The Problem With Too Many Choices And The Opportunity - and culture - A Transcultural Perspective on the Retail Experience - have led to additional musings relating to the retail experience....

Consider that Katia, in A Transcultural Perspective on the Retail Experience, refers to Colgate, a brand familiar to her in Brazil and the US. Although she encounters more US Colgate products to choose from, her familiarity with this global brand allows her to navigate those choices effectively. It 'translates' from one culture to another.

Store brands tend to be more local in nature and require more from consumers who must determine how to connect with them. The connection results from relevance and context. The first time I experienced IKEA, a global brand, I had no context for it. It wasn't yet relevant to me, and had no meaning [n.b., think how valuable endorsements or word-of-mouth referrals are in these situations]. No relevance means no meaning.

This post from CK's Blog titled To be brand free highlights how Get Shouty's Katie Chatfield experienced freedom from brand constraints in lands as foreign as China and the US [Katie is Australian and has recently moved to Chicago]. In China, she can read neither words nor numbers. In the US, many products, brands and stores have no meaning for her [e.g., what is the difference between Bloomingdale's, Macy's, Nordstrom?] and no context. They are irrelevant.

Depending on one's state of mind [and need], that freedom from brand constraint can be buoying and a source of discovery or mind-numbing and a source of tension. When on vacation, I love visiting stores that carry food, stationery, toiletries and accessories. Any 'foreign-ness' is a source of delight and discovery. However, when a need is more pressing, the charm and delight vanish immediately. Foreign-ness becomes cumbersome, inefficient, and frustrating.

Mind you, foreign-ness can occur at home. It can result from a simple difference in frame of reference: logical, generational, cultural, gender-based, experience-based as well as linguistic. It can happen at any time.

A logical difference: how many times have you been frustrated with a grocery store's non intuitive category scheme? You tried to find an item and the place where you eventually locate it has nothing to do with your original expectations. [That's why cross-merchandising can be so effective!] This post from Reshma Anand titled Super (fluous) Markets offers new perspective on grocery shopping!

Perhaps you live in an area where alcohol cannot be purchased in a grocery store or where stores are closed on Sundays. Did you know that in France, Ibuprofen requires a prescription whereas it is available over-the-counter in the US [at least, this was the case the last time I visited!]?

For a marvelous taste of cultural and religious differences, listen to these clips from a new Canadian show titled Little Mosque on the Prairie. I learned about the show while in Atlanta listening to NPR and was intrigued not only by the humour of the show, but also by the generational and cultural differences that the show explores. Read more in The Globe and Mail's story from 1/09/07.

[David Wolfe from Ageless Marketing recently posted these 4 articles on the On The Subject of Generational Nonsense, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. David objects vehemently to categorizing people into generational groups because it leads marketers to overlook points of commonality - hence the benefit of promoting the principles of ageless marketing and appealing to consumers based on where they fit in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. How we meet those needs changes from generation to generation; the needs themselves remain constant.]

Linguistic differences: It can be as minor as different expressions based on geographic regions for a same thought: "I'll take her to the store" vs. "I'll carry her to the store." On a more extreme note, Retail Design Diva describes in Not Lost in Translation an interesting new translation tool that Kroger offers for its pharmacies. The ultimate solution for dealing with linguistic issues [e.g., think of Katie in China] is hiring an interpreter - although one still needs to get 'calibrated' with the interpreter.

Experience-based: What about categories where the consumer feels completely at a loss? Where, not only is there no brand context, but also no affinity? Think insurance, mortgages, carpet, legalities... How does one navigate? Here, too, an interpreter or advisor can come in handy, but oftentimes that 's not an option! I experienced this while making baby-related purchases: a first time mom, I felt the weight of the world on me [literally and figuratively], and couldn't for the life of me understand pricepoint and product feature differences and their benefits to me. Now, I know better, but not then.

Gender-based differences: Deborah Tannen has written extensively about the differences in how men and women communicate: lots of potential for foreign-ness there! Marketing to women and recognizing those differences represents a significant opportunity in retail where women represent over 85% of the decision makers. Especially in carpet/flooring!

CK makes this point: "In this global economy--whether brands are shipped there or new brand buyers shipped here--histories and well-entrenched hierarchies matter less, brand experiences more. With more touch points, channels and media than ever for making a meaningful impact with audiences both familiar and fresh to our products each brand needs to build its case each time, rather than resting on past merits. Along with the round world going flat, everything old is new again.

So, if the experience matters now more than ever, then we must take every opportunity to see the world from our customer's perspective, to be Marketing Experiences Not Products and Experiencing the Lifecycle from a consumer's perspective as Becky Carroll explains in Customers Rock!. We must probe and ask questions, and get beyond issues of foreign-ness to determine the best way to help consumers navigate the options and decide on the best possible solution to their needs. The ultimate end result is a retail experience that not only has them coming back again and again, but also generates extensive word-of-mouth buzz, and endless referrals!

Note: Laurence-Helene at Blog Til you Drop promises to post further about some of her experiences with consumerism and culture shock. Her blog, by the way, offers a wonderful perspective on French marketing and advertising - among other things!

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Transcultural Perspective On The Retail Experience

I'm very pleased to share with you a post by Katia Adams from ¡Hola! Oi! Hi! - Transcultural Comments and Marketing - about the retail experience.

Katia and I connected via the Z-list [see Extending bZZZ] and a mis-statement I made in a comment to her in Spanish. Talk about a transcultural moment! Nonetheless, I have never been so thrilled to embarrass myself: it has led to fascinating exchanges and the following post.

Katia is from Brazil. She came to the U.S. in 2000, became fluent in English and Spanish, acquired a BS in Marketing, and soon an MBA! Not bad! Imagine combining a firsthand experience in culture shock with a love of marketing and using that as the basis not only for a fascinating blog, but also for a unique perspective on the marketplace called transcultural marketing. You can learn more about that in
Lost In Translation Makes for Better Adaptation.

I had visited the US a couple of times before I came to live here, and one of the things that struck me most was the enormous variety of products available on store shelves compared to Latin America. The impact of “wide variety” alone has its effects on building size, and so one sees enormous super markets and drug stores in the US compared to relatively small to moderate sized stores in Latin America.

In Brazil, product selection – in total number of brands and varieties – is far more limited than in the US; at best 3-5 brands and varieties per product. And, even though Wal-Mart and other global chains that have opened up operations in Latin America have changed the landscape in the direction of “hyper-markets,” the “local branded” supermarkets or drugstores are still appreciably smaller. The “local” stores, of course, have wisely positioned themselves as offering “more personalized” service and selections compared to their competitive (foreign) cousins.

The reason for these differences is associated with the underlying socioeconomics of the respective markets. The US has the socioeconomic means and associated mindset to develop and support a vast mass market economy with a finely honed consumptive mindset and habits. Developing markets – lacking similar socioeconomics, mindset and the habits with which to implement it – have a hard time keeping pace. Significant marketing, positioning and communications implications arise from that, and are reflected in the retail environment -something fascinating to be exposed to.

An interesting misconception about consumers exposed to a limited range of products is to say that those consumers are brand loyal. Yet, when all you have are 2 or 3 brands to choose from, the fact is that you are only “brand restricted,” because once (a) globally marketed brands enter the market, or (b) these consumer migrate to mass markets, brand switch becomes a predictable event. And, it is a legitimate “brand switch” rather than just “trial.”

That’s exactly what happened to me. In Brazil, Colgate is the dominant toothpaste brand and, being a good conservatively minded consumer, I was a regular user of the “original” white Colgate. When I migrated to the US, I still used Colgate, but I “migrated” to some of the other varieties of my regular brand, like Colgate with fluoride or the whitening agent, the pump or some other attribute. Then, I began to engage in brand trial with one of the other competitive premium brands. What happened then is that I experienced “choice pressure” – perceiving that I “had to” choose from a wide variety of options rather than sticking conservatively to one brand. At that point, I would say, marketing had molded in me the mindset of a classic mass market consumer.

The way I functioned in Brazil was to choose either the one I needed or the one I could afford; the one I wanted was never a consideration. Product choice is much simpler that way.

Since I’ve been living in the US, I’ve gotten used to and enjoy the many choices the market offers, but I still shop pretty much the way I did back home: I uncomplicate my life by opting not to choose and just pick what I really need or can afford.

Until I thought through Katia's experience, I hadn't really internalized the cultural implications surrounding how we make choices. Yet, it's a critical point particularly in retail. Consider The United States in 2005, and notice how significantly our demographic patterns have changed: we've become a much more diverse society. Our consumers have more varied international backgrounds than ever before and -inevitably- bring culture with them into retail stores to help them make sense of the choices available.

Now - more than ever - we must consider everything from our customers' perspectives! What will it take to delight them? To showcase products in the most effective way possible? To demonstrate the value of one brand over another? To help them navigate product selections in case it's a matter of Are There Too Many Choices? What a marvelous opportunity, but one that requires looking at our retail experience from a transcultural perspective!

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Power of Community - 150 Top Marketing Blogs

While in Atlanta this week, I routinely checked my Technorati links and came across Todd And's Power 150 Top Marketing Blogs. And, guess what? I found Flooring The Consumer listed among the Power 150! I investigated further....

Todd has developed an interesting algorithm to come up with the listing - it's based on Google PageRank, Bloglines Subscribers, Technorati Ranking and ... the special secret ingredient: Todd And Points. Add that all up, and Flooring The Consumer comes in at 112 with a generous 11 out of 15 Todd And Points. How cool is that? Thanks, Todd!

What is particularly engaging about The Power 150 is that Todd includes an RSS subscription button - so it's easy to connect with new marketing blog discoveries.

In looking over the whole list, I'm speechless at the effort The Power 150 took to create. I wondered what inspired him, and came across The Power 150 - America's Top Marketing Blogs - the post in which he announces The Power 150 and his source of inspiration, The MarCom 100, a Dutch listing of top marketing blogs.

The sheer dedication, inspiration and passion that Todd demonstrates with The Power 150 brings to mind the amazing Z-list collage that Sandy Renshaw from PurpleWren created [see Sharing the Z-List]. As you can see here and on my sidebar, it, too, is engaging and demonstrates a similar commitment to community building and connection creation. [For more on the Z-list, read Extending bZZZ.]

Imagine developing this level of community within your business, and offering your customers a similar level of connection. Isn't it powerful, meaningful and memorable? Have you tried anything like this in your retail organization? I'd love to hear about it.

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