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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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Anonymous said...

Hi Christine and Reshma!

What a wonderful post! I'm so glad we have joined forces :-)

The point about being in a foreign environment is certainly valid and true. Habits and values we acquire while growing up are very hard to change and we carry them with us for a long time. What triggers the change in behavior is often unknown, but price is certainly an instant and concrete reward.

The challenge in reaching people who come from other countries is so great... Take the Hispanic in the US as an example. There's almost a whole Hispanic country inside the country, who are different and don't respond in the same way mainstream does, even though basic needs are the same and popular trends can be seen followed by both groups.

The manifestation of needs/wants and the response to those are what's different, and we just need to understand that better.

Anonymous said...

Hi both,

Great post indeed. The decision to purchase is often made at home and I think that supermarkets should do more work in terms of shelving, floor labelling, wobblers etc - if a product catches our attention, it might, with a bit of luck eventually find us...

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