Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Modern Shopper: Society's Latest Thrill Seeker

A recent New York Times story on new consumer trends (Julie Bick's "24 Rolls of Toilet Paper, a Tub of Salsa and a Plasma TV," January 28, 2007) highlighted the findings of researcher and entrepreneur Pamela Danziger, who claims that Americans are moving rapidly into a whole new era of buying motivation. This new trend is marked not by the mall (so 1980's) nor the giant discounters like Wal-Mart (way too 1990's) but rather by the deliberate emphasis by retailers on the intense psychological factors that fuel modern buyers. Call it thrill seeking via credit card.

Danziger has put a lot of work into this field of research. She is the founder of Unity Marketing and has become a popular spokesperson on issues involving consumer spending and motivation. Indeed, Danziger has appeared on programs such as Today, CBS News Sunday Morning, NPR's Marketplace and has been interviewed for stories run by the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Forbes, USA Today and more. Her three books have been very influential: Why People Buy Things They Don't Need; Let Them Eat Cake: Marketing Luxury to the Masses; and her newest book, Shopping: Why We Love It and How Retailers Can Create the Ultimate Customer Experience.

Danziger's primary point in her new book (and thus in the NY Times article) is that today's consumer has money (or credit) to burn and rather than saving, budgeting, and shopping smart, the new motivation for buying is experiencing an emotional high. Simply buying luxury items, for instance, provides a thrill for today's shopper that is often more of a joy than the actual use of the item. Impulse buying, once a term used to describe undisciplined, irresponsible spending, is now a priority in the marketing plan of the retailer, including even the store's floor plan, display strategy and ambience.

Quality...durability...necessity -- these values are out. Getting a kick out of shopping is in.

Studies prove Danziger's point. For instance, 70% of Americans admit that they often (or even regularly) shop -- just for fun. So many stores are providing just that. Aiming to capture the recreational shopper, marketers are developing new techniques all the time to make you want to come to their stores and buy their goods -- because it feels so doggone good!

In the Times article, Danziger describes the successful model of Costco, "Shopping at Costco often goes something like this: Customer comes to buy bulk necessities like toilet paper and dish detergent. Customer buys those items, as well as a pack of giant muffins, three cashmere sweaters and a power tool. It's more than impulse buying. It is a calculated part of the company's business plan. Call it the Costco effect.

'We always come out with too much,' said Linda Curtis Schneider, who lives in Nashville. 'It's hard to get out of there for under $200.'

The article explains how the trend of targeting (dare one say, manipulating?) a consumer's psychology is having great success. But the strategy is defended by sellers as simply providing what shoppers most want; namely, a good time, a release of stress, an escape from boredom, the feeling that they're living the good life, and the enjoyment of a little one-upmanship on their friends.

Danziger, whose job is to increase the profit margins of her retailer clients, is all for it. She cites Costco as one of the leaders of the new trend and encourages other companies to emulate them. 'Shopping is recreational there,' she said. 'People seek out this psychological reward.'"

But, of course, is reward the appropriate term for something so flighty, so unnecessary, so irresponsible as buying something you don't need? Sure, you can buy now and squeeze as much of the thrill out of the moment of purchase as possible. But then later, you must pay. And payment is frequently a much longer, more stressful experience -- one that creates much more dissonance than it's worth even as it negates the healthier experiences of saving, investing and helping those with acute material needs.

So, please beware the intoxicating lure of the retailer. Shop wisely and well. And find your fun somewhere besides the store!