Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Crowds of Black Friday

2009 has been another rough year for the retail sector, as it continues to be battered by rising unemployment, pessimistic consumers, and newly thrifty shoppers. As Black Friday, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season approaches, retail observers are placing their bets. Will customers continue to sit on their wallets, refusing to budge until they see massive discounts? Or will they capitulate in a Christmas shopping frenzy as retailers try to hold the line on prices?

One thing is certain: come Friday, stores will be mobbed as about a quarter of American households shake off their tryptophan-induced stupor and hit the stores (latest one-upsmanship schtick: Old Navy stores will open at 3 a.m., maybe because you can never know the extent of the pent-up demand for cargo pants at that hour of the morning). Last year, Black Friday was marred by a tragic death when a Wal-Mart worker was trampled by an out-of-control bargain-seeking horde. This year, writes the New York Times, stores are taking steps to better manage crowds. The Times reports that Wal-Mart is taking a page from experts who manage throngs at major events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics to prevent crowding. There’s a poetic irony in the fact that as consumers are purportedly pinching pennies, they literally can’t storm the stores fast enough.

Time reports that this year, retailers and shoppers are engaged in a game of chicken as shoppers wait for discounts and retailers try to dig in their heels. But do you think this game of double-dare is the new normal? From now on, might the contest go something like this:

Phase 1: people sit at home on their hands, stubbornly refusing to consume.
Phase 2: retailers put deals and discounts lower and lower and until they finally hit the "magic” percentage off number;
Phase 3: floodgates open; aisles full; cash registers sing; everybody happy; life is good.
Phase 4: retailers quickly repeal the dramatic offers because—oops—they’re too costly.
Phase 5: consumers go back to being unhappy—give retailers the cold shoulder and sit at home, waiting them out until the next time.
Phase 6: see Phase 2.
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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Agape in the aisle

It all became clear in an interview a few years back with a man named Sherwood Schwartz, the television producer who created the dubious passel of 1970s-era comedy shows like Gilligan’s Island, Beverly Hillbillies, and the Brady Bunch, among others. The interviewer asked him to explain why every one of his shows always began with an expository theme song---a song that would explain in vivid detail the premise of the show (“So this is the tale of the castaways….” and “Come and listen to my story ‘bout a man named Jed….” and “Here’s the story of a lovely lady…”). Schwartz said he believed this was the essential week-in-and-week-out ingredient to the success of his television comedies because, as he put it, “the puzzled cannot laugh.”

Cut to the aisle of your local supermarket. We use video systems to capture and code shopper styles and behaviors in retail stores. This lets us see thousands of repeated behaviors, many of them eye-opening to ourselves and our clients. But whether the study is about diapers, dog food or analgesics, we too often see a hidden segment of shoppers perhaps best described as “the puzzled.” These shoppers stand perfectly still. They stare at the shelf and—I’m not kidding—their mouths are usually open. When it seems like divine Providence will not explode off the shelf to help them find the brand answer they seem to be looking for, the following sequence usually takes place: they reach for a product, they heft it, they turn it over in their hands, they return it to the shelf, they reach for a competitive brand and go through the same “heft, read and regard” routine before putting it back. Then they walk away, shaking their heads ever so slightly (this is one of the reasons we also do intercepts—a way to learn what that whole last bit was all about.)

Obviously marketers need to make sure they’re not losing sales because something about the product or the package or the brand is causing head-scratching in the aisle. But it’s never a bad idea to apply the Schwartz Admonition to the point of sale because of a truth we’ve documented too many times: the puzzled cannot buy.
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