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Surge pricing is a variant of dynamic pricing (also known as variable pricing). The dynamics of prices means that prices can now change much more frequently and vary across customers, time and place at ever higher resolution; a price surge or hike at peak moments in demand can be described as an outcome of dynamic pricing. Surge pricing received great attention due to Uber’s application of this strategy, and not least because of the controversial way that Uber implemented it. But dynamic pricing, and surge pricing within it, is a growing field with various forms of applications in different domains.

A price surge is generally attributed to a surge in demand. In the case of Uber, when the number of customer requests for rides (‘hailing’) critically exceeds the number of drivers available in a given geographic area, Uber enforces a ‘surge multiplier’ of the normal (relatively low) price or tariff (e.g., two times the normal price). The multiplier remains in effect for a period of time until demand can be reasonably met. The advantages, as explained by Uber, are that through this price treatment (1) drivers can be encouraged to join the pool of active drivers (i.e., ready to receive requests on Uber app), as well as  pulling drivers from adjacent areas; and (2) priority can be given to a smaller group of those customers who are in greater need of prompt service and are willing to pay the higher price. Consequently, waiting times for customers willing to pay the price premium will be shorter.  (Note: Lyft is applying a similar approach.)

There are some noteworthy aspects to the modern surge pricing. A basic tenet of economic theory says that when demand surpasses the supply of a good or service, its price will rise until a match is reached between the levels of demand and supply so as to ‘clear the market’. Yet the neo-classic economic theory also assumes that the equilibrium price applies to all consumers (and suppliers) in the market for a length of time that the stable equilibrium prevails; it does not account well for temporary ‘shocks’. Proponents of surge pricing argue that this pricing strategy is an appropriate correction to a market failure caused by short-term ‘shocks’ due to unusual events in particular places. There is room in economic theory for more complex situations that allow for price differentials such as seasonality effects or gaps between geographic regions (e.g., urban versus rural, central versus peripheral). Still, seasonal prices are the same “across-the-board” for all; and regions of different geographic markets are usually well separated. On the other hand, in surge pricing, and in dynamic pricing more broadly, it is possible through advanced technology to isolate and fit a price to a very specific group of consumers in a given time and space.

One of the concerns with surge pricing in ride e-hailing is that the method could take advantage of consumers-riders when they have little choice, cannot afford to wait too long (e.g., hurry to get to a meeting or to the airport) or cannot afford a price several times higher than normal (e.g., multipliers of more than 5x). The problem becomes more acute as surge pricing seems to ‘kick in’ at worst times for riders, when they are in distress [1a](e.g., in heavy rain, late at night after a party). The method seems to screen potential riders not based on how badly they need the service but on how much they are willing to pay. The method may fix a problem for the service platform provider more than for its customers. Suppose hundreds of people are coming out at the same time from a hall after a live music concert. If the surge multiplier shown in the app at the time the prospect rider wants to be driven home is too high because of the emerging peak in demand, he or she is advised to wait somewhat longer until it slides down again. How long should riders wait for the multiplier to come down? Often enough, so it is reported, it takes just a few minutes (e.g., minor traffic fluctuations). But in more stubborn situations the rider may be able to catch a standard taxi by the time the multiplier declines, or if the weather permits, walk some distance where one can hail a taxi or get onto another mode of public transport.

Another pitfall is reduced predictability of the occurrence of surge pricing. Consumers know when seasons start and end and can learn when to expect lower and higher prices  accordingly (though it used to be easier thirty years ago). In public transport, peak hours (e.g., morning, afternoon) are usually declared in advance, wherein  travel tariffs could be elevated during those periods. Since surge pricing is based on real-time information available to the service platform provider, it is harder to predict the occasions when surge pricing will be activated, and furthermore the extent of price increase. Relatedly, drastic price changes (e.g., due to high frequency of updates, strong fluctuations) tends to increase the uncertainty for service users [1b].

The extent of price surge or hike is a particular source of confusion. Users are notified before hailing a Uber driver if surge is on, and a surge multiplier in effect at that time should appear on the screen. The multiplier keeps being updated on the platform. It is sensible, however, for the multiplier to stay fixed for an individual rider after the service is ordered. Thus the rider can make a decision based on a known price level for the duration of the ride (or an estimate of the cost to expect). Otherwise, the rider may be exposed to a rising price rate while being driven to destination — but the rider should also benefit if the multiplier starts to slide down (or entering another area where surge is off). The first scenario resembles more a situation of bidding whereas the latter scenario looks more like gambling. Stories and complaints from Uber users reveal recurring surprises and unclarity about the cost of rides (e.g., claims the multiplier was 9x, a ride of 20 minutes that cost several hundreds of dollars, a claim the multiplier dropped but the total price did not go down in accordance). Users may not pay attention sufficiently to the multiplier before hailing a ride, do not comprehend how the pricing method works, or they simply lose track of the cost of the ride (i.e., the charge is automatic and appears later on the user’s account).

Discontent of customers may also be raised by a sharp contrast experienced between the relatively low normal price rate (e.g., compared with a standard taxi) and the high prices produced by surge multipliers [1c].  A counter argument contends that the price hikes or surges allow for low rates at normal times by subsidising them [2]. More confusion about Uber’s pricing algorithm could stem from reports on additional factors that the company might use as input (e.g., people are more receptive of surge prices when the battery of their mobile phone is low, and customers are more willing to accept a rounded multiplier number than a close non-rounded figure just below or above it (MarketWatch.com, 28 December 2017).

  • Not even a strategy of surge pricing appears to be completely immune to attempts of manipulation. It was revealed in 2019 that drivers with Uber (and also Lyft’s) have tried to game the surge mechanism. The ‘trick’ is to turn off the app at a given time in a coordinated manner among drivers, let the surge multiplier rise, and then turn on the app again to gain quickly enough from the higher rate as long as it prevails. The method seems to have been used especially at airports in anticipation of incoming passengers, based on the knowledge of drivers of several flights scheduled to land during a short interval. The motivation for taking this action: the drivers claim they are not paid enough at normal times by the platform operators (BusinessInsider, 14 June 2019).

Uptal Dholakia, a professor of marketing at Rice University (also see [1]), suggested four remedies to the kinds of problems described above. First, he advised to set a cap (maximum) on surge multipliers and notify customers more clearly about them (greater transparency). In addition, he recommended curbing the volatility of price fluctuations and communicating better the benefits of the method (e.g., reduced waiting times). Dholakia also raised an issue about a negative connotation of the term ‘surge’ that perhaps should be replaced in customer communications [3].

Various forms of dynamic pricing, including surge pricing, are already utilised in multiple domains. It is noted, for instance, that the strategy of Uber was not initiated to resolve problems of traffic congestion; ‘surge’ may be activated as its result but the purpose is to resolve the interruptions that congestion may cause to the service. For dealing with traffic congestion and overload in roads, other types of surge pricing are being used by public authorities. First, a fast lane is dedicated on a highway or autoroute (e.g., entering a large city) for a fee — the amount of ‘surge’ fee is determined by the density of traffic on the other regular lanes. Drivers who wish to arrive faster should pay this fee that is displayed on a signboard as one approaches entry to the lane (a few moments are allowed to decide whether to stay or abort). Second, a congestion fee, which could actually be a variable surge fee, may be imposed on non-residents who seek to enter the municipal area of a city at certain hours of the day.

As indicated earlier, public transportation systems in large cities may charge a higher tariff during peak or rush hours. The time periods that a raised tariff applies are usually declared in advance (i.e., they are fixed). Peak and off-peak rates may apply to different types of travel fares. The scheme is employed to encourage passengers who do not really need to travel at those hours to change their schedule and not further load the mass transportation system. There is of course a downside to this approach for passengers who must travel on those hours, such as for getting to work (employers who cover travel expenses should set the amount according to the cost of the more expensive rate). Using surge pricing in this case would mean that passengers cannot tell for certain and in advance when a higher tariff applies, but the scale of ‘surge prices’ can be pre-set with a limited number of ‘steps’, and thus reduce resentment and opposition.

Other types of dynamic (variable) pricing involve strong technological and data capabilities, including demand at an aggregate level and customer preferences and behaviour (search, purchase) at the individual level. A company like Amazon.com keeps updating its prices around the clock based on data of demand for products sold on its e-commerce platform. A more specific type of dynamic pricing entails the customisation of prices quoted to individual users-customers (i.e., different prices for the same book title offered to different customers). The approach maintains that a higher price could be set, for instance, for books in a category in which the customer purchases books more frequently and even based on search for titles in categories of interest. This form of price customisation is debatable because it aims to absorb a greater portion of the consumer’s value surplus (i.e., how much value a consumer assigns to a product above its monetary price requested by the seller), raising concerns of unfairness and discrimination. The risk to sellers is of making products less worthwhile to consumers to buy at the higher customised prices. (Note: Amazon was publicly blamed of using some form of price customisation in the early 2000s after customers discovered they had paid different prices from their friends; however the practice has not been banned and it is suspected to be in use by companies in different domains.)

  • Take for example the air travel sector: Airlines may use any of these methods of variable pricing: (a) Offering the same seat on the aircraft at different price levels (‘sub-classes’) depending on the timing of reservation before the scheduled flight: the earlier a reservation is made, the lower the price; (b) Changing fares for flights to different destinations based on fluctuations in demand for each destination and time of flight; (c) There are claims that airlines also adjust upwards the fares on flights to destinations that prospect travellers check more frequently in the online reservation system.

More companies in additional sectors are expected to join by applying varied forms of dynamic pricing. Retailers with physical stores are expected foremost to use dynamic pricing more extensively to tackle the growing challenges they face particularly from Amazon.com in the Western world (e.g., supermarkets will employ digital price displays that will allow them to change prices more continuously during the day and week according to visitor traffic levels). Restaurants may set higher prices during more busy hours at their premises, and hotels are likely to vary their room rates more intensively, taking into consideration not only seasonal fluctuations but also special events like conferences, festivals and fairs (e.g., see “The Death of Prices”, Axios, 30 April 2019).

Dynamic pricing, and surge pricing in particular, is the new reality in pricing policy, with applications getting increasingly pervasive. As technological and analytical capabilities only improve, the pricing models and techniques are likely to be enhanced and become furthermore sophisticated. Moreover, methods of artificial intelligence will improve in learning patterns of market and consumer behaviour, expected to enable companies to set prices with greater specificity and accuracy. At the same time, businesses need to take greater caution not to deter their customers by causing excessive confusion and aggravation. The question then becomes: What bases of discrimination — among consumers, at different times, and in different locations — would be considered fair and legitimate? This promises to be a major challenge for both enterprises that set prices and for the consumers who have to judge and respond to the dynamic prices.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

[1a-c] “Uber’s Surge Pricing: Why Everyone Hates It?”, Uptal M. Dholakia, Government Technology (magazine’s online portal), 27 January 2016

[2] “Frustrated by Surge Pricing? Here’s How It Benefits You in the Long Run”, Knowledge @Wharton (Management), 5 January 2016. A talk with Ruben Lobel and Kaitlin Daniels at Wharton Management School at the University of Pennsylvania.

[3] “Everyone Hates Uber’s Surge Pricing — Here’s How to Fix It”, Uptal M. Dholakia, Harvard Business Review (Online), 21 December 2015

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Dan is driving in an inter-city road; on the sideline of the road he notices ahead of him a large ad billboard — he is likely to have about a second, maybe even less, to watch and get any details from the ad. Sharon is sitting in her living room, reading a print magazine; in between articles she may glance at full-page ads — she is dedicating perhaps a couple of seconds to any ad that attracts her attention before moving on. Such short durations are critically limiting the amount of information consumers are able to capture and utilise to make inferences and judgements about an ad.

Research of consumer response to advertising more often deals with the decoding of  messages embedded in ads — how consumers gather (by eye fixations) and process pieces of information from the ad, and how they interpret them to derive key points of the message. This process frequently involves reference by the consumers to text and images in the ad, and any relations between them — these are usually thick slices of information to work with. However, consumers’ exposure durations to ads get shorter, meaning they allow for capturing very few pieces of information (e.g., headline and an image or a portion of it) to make inferences — these are thin slices of information.  A quick exposure may be enforced by the display setting (e.g., rotating online ad banners, road billboards) or being the outcome of shorter attention spans (i.e., consumers choose to view any single print ad only briefly).

In three interesting experiments conducted by Elsen, Pieters and Wedel (2016), the researchers examine the implications of  allowing for short exposure durations (i.e., 100ms up to 2 seconds), compared with longer durations [*]. Shorter durations are likely to enable consumers to capture and use only thin slices of information, and probably  also give too little time to elaborate on them. The researchers suggest that short durations can at least permit consumers to correctly infer the identity of the focal product and brand advertised, and that is not something to be discarded.

Elsen and her colleagues test three different identification types of ads: (1) Upfront — identification is straightforward, with the product and brand presented more explicitly in the ad; the ad is similar to other ads in the same product category and dissimilar from ads in other categories. (2) Mystery — the product in this type of ad could appear in a more sublime way or be implicit within an artful design (visual rhetorical figure); the ad is atypical to its category, dissimilar from ads in the same product category, but also dissimilar from ads in other categories. (3) False Front — the product in this ad format could be disguised by presenting the product in a context of another type of product  (e.g., a metaphor rhetorical figure, such as a bottle of drink presented as if it were a bottle of fragrance); this ad is atypical in being dissimilar from other ads in its product category while being similar to ads in a different category than its own. The brand usually takes a less central place in a mystery or false front ad.

The mystery and false front types of ads are considered more difficult to identify the product than in an upfront ad. An upfront ad is easier to process because it follows a schema familiar to consumers for that category (e.g., including typical perceptual features). The mystery and false front ads are more difficult to interpret but in somewhat different ways. Both types apply a form of artful expressive figure, yet the false front ad could be more confusing (e.g., whereas a mystery ad may include a product of another type positioned in relation to the focal product, the false front would show in front the focal product as if it were another type of product {substitution}). Both ads may build on a relationship between a focal product and another product, yet assuming a different kind of relationship. The implication for the false front ad is that consumers need to switch schemas by which they process and interpret the ad content and identity of the product (i.e., they are likely get at first a wrong impression of what product is upfront, and it takes longer to comprehend what product is actually being advertised).

In a very brief exposure (100msec, less than a typical fixation), consumers can consciously grasp the gist of the ad scene; they can also identify a typical product if it appears centrally and straightforward.  This permits them to hold a more positive attitude towards the upfront ad compared with their attitudes towards mystery or false front ads. The attitude towards the false front ad seems to be somewhat more positive compared with the mystery ad, although not as significantly as the researchers expected — while the focal product may appear obvious in the false front ad, the scene is still not much easier to grasp than in a mystery ad. Yet, as exposure durations extend longer than two seconds, the differences in processing and evaluating the mystery and false front ads become more striking.

An exposure of half a second (500ms) allows for two fixations at two spatially-distinct locations in the ad and processing the information in them; it has been identified as closely the average exposure duration for outdoors ads. A two-second exposure allows already for fixating and processing a few more pieces of information throughout the ad; this is the average duration that consumers have been observed to attend to (fixed) display ads. The findings indicate that from 500ms onwards the attitude towards mystery ads is climbing and the attitude towards false front ads is in decline; it is however at about two seconds of exposure that attitude towards mystery ads closes the gap and becomes more positive than towards false front ads, and further on approaches the level of attitude towards upfront ads (after 10 seconds of exposure).

After exposures longer than 5-10 seconds it becomes apparent that an early impression about the product identity in a false front ad was illusory, and possibly following the realisation of their mistake, consumers seem to turn their evaluation in disfavour of the ad. On the other hand, mystery ads seem to be more positively intriguing, where demystified viewers who decode the “story” in the ad and figure out the product and brand identity become more in favour of the ad. (Note: Changes in attitude towards the ad transfer to changes in brand attitude though with weaker magnitude.)

Our understanding of these findings can be strengthened by considering the intervening effects of consumer knowledge: the feeling that one knows what product (and brand) the ad is for (subjective knowledge) and the accuracy of the inference or conclusion reached by the viewer (objective knowledge); furthermore important is how well subjective and objective knowledge match or calibrate.  Very quickly (after 100ms exposure) ad viewers have a strong feeling they know what type of product is being advertised, and indeed they are found correct (i.e., their knowledge is calibrated). For mystery ads, viewers are in clear difficulty of identifying correctly the product being advertised after brief exposures of 100ms, yet they seem to be aware of this difficulty as they feel quite uncertain about the product identity (i.e., their knowledge is also calibrated).  Objective knowledge with regard to mystery ads seems to improve sooner (at exposure of 500ms) than subjective knowledge, but in any case after two seconds viewers generally get it right, and feel more confident about it. It means that even in mystery ads, two seconds are likely to be sufficient to correctly identify the product being advertised.

With false front ads the situation is rather different: Ad viewers quickly (as early as 100ms) come to believe they know well what type of product is actually being advertised, while in fact they are as wrong as in the case of mystery ads (i.e., knowledge is not calibrated). After just 500ms the situation already improves, and after two seconds they could be on the right track, knowing better what product the ad is for and feeling confident about their conclusion — only that they likely had to change their course of thinking in order to arrive to a new and different conclusion about the product than they had thought before. The analyses of Elsen, Pieters and Wedel further show that the influence of ad types on viewers’ attitudes towards ads is mediated (‘explained’) by the subjective feeling of knowledge, not the accuracy of knowing the product identity. As consumers have more time to verify their inferences and feel successful in decoding the ad, at least identifying the product and brand, they are more likely to develop a higher favourable attitude towards the ad (and brand). Since in false front ads this verification process is more likely to fail and consumers need to rectify their conclusion, their ad attitude is likely to suffer.

  • Note: Certainty about the brand is low for mystery and false front ads after 100ms, and it is also relatively low for upfront ads vis-à-vis product identity; as exposures get longer the gaps in certainty narrow until conversion at 10 seconds of exposure (accuracy for brands is not measured)  — thinking about the specific brand may occur later than the product, and the brand placement may also be less central in the ad.)

Elsen et al. challenge a claim made by other researchers that longer exposures to ‘standard’ upfront ads would lead to a less favourable attitude because they are perceived as boring and routine. They argue instead that consumers-viewers who feel able to confirm their identification of the product (relatively easily) after a little more time of inspecting the ad might making them really more satisfied and favourable towards the ad. The attitude towards upfront ad remains quite stable at a high level over exposure durations. In Experiment 1 the attitude seems to drop a little as exposures get longer (up to 30 seconds), suggesting that after five seconds and longer, viewers do get bored by straightforward ads, but the estimated trend was not statistically significant. However, Experiment 3 revealed that the attitude towards upfront ads even improves after allowing for exposures of up to about 7 seconds. The results suggest that five seconds could be more than enough to interpret what the ad is about and identify the product advertised in an upfront ad; and if somewhat more time is given, this can only help the consumer to confirm an initial feeling he or she knows what product is advertised, thus contributing to the positive attitude towards the ad.


 

Distinguishing between mystery and false front ads is not clear-cut.  It can take a few seconds to realise what kind of rhetoric figure is being used and to understand the “story” being told in either a mystery or false front ad. The problem is that the identity of the product is often intertwined with the message, so that identifying the product requires at least partly interpreting the message (e.g., in a metaphor where an attribute of another product type or object is projected onto the focal product). I therefore suspect that the recommendation of the researchers that it is somehow possible to separate between tuning the ad identity (“what is promoted”) and tuning the ad message (“how it is promoted”) might be easier said than done. Elsen and her colleagues propose that “combining upfront identification with specific creative message templates might be particularly effective in cluttered media environments in which exposure durations are short” (p. 575). While accepting this recommendation, one should take into consideration that the ad may cease being truly “upfront” to the consumers-viewers, and could take longer to interpret and extract the product identity from the creative message.

It is not suggested to avoid false front ads but to acknowledge that they are more risky. If they apply a metaphor, it may take closer to ten seconds rather than two seconds to understand the situation and identify the product correctly; actually there is no guarantee that the viewer will “get it” even after ten seconds. The viewer might leave the ad happy after a brief exposure but associating it with a wrong product. The risk additionally is that the viewer may feel being fooled after realising the true product identity or frustrated of not being able to realise it after a few seconds, and that is manifested in the results about the ad attitude in all three experiments.

The important lesson is to evaluate in what conditions it is most suitable and effective to use each of these ad types. A duration of two seconds appears to be a significant threshold. There is little point in being too clever and showing mystery or false front ads neither on road billboards nor in digital display environments (e.g., Internet, apps) when the ad display rotates and every ad is replaced after a brief period (e.g., 1-2 seconds). Mobile devices in use, particularly smartphones, and screen displays that exhibit a strong competition between content and advertising can be especially challenging environments for the more creative and clever ads. Achieving product and brand identity through simple upfront ads would be a justified and reasonable goal in those circumstances. In other conditions, print and digital, and specifically when the ad is static, there should be greater flexibility for the advertiser to choose from the full spectrum of upfront, mystery, and false front ads (e.g., a mystery ad type could succeed if at least 3-4 seconds of showing an ad between webpages pass before the target page loads or the viewer is given an option to proceed to the target page after that duration). Moreover, grades of creativity may be applied to captivate attention in more cluttered and competitive media environments (consider also pedestrian areas in cities).

Gaining consumer identification of the product and brand in ads is vital and important. But it would be a loss and spoil if advertisers and advertising professionals stop aspiring for higher goals with more creative and clever rhetorical figures and designs. The research of Elsen, Pieters and Wedel highlights the need to choose wisely when and where it would be more suitable and effective to employ a straightforward or a more creative and clever ad design.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Note:

[*] Thin Slice Impressions: How Advertising Evaluation Depends on Exposure Duration; Millie Else, Rik Pieters, & Michel Wedel, 2016; Journal of Marketing Research, 53 (August), pp. 563-579 (DOI: 10.1509/jmr.13.0398).

 

 

 

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Anyone who has been to a trade fair, as those taking place usually on weekends in villages, small towns and some big cities, would know the kind of treasure goods one can find there: woodcraft decorative figurines (e.g., animals), dolls and puppets, handmade kitchenware, glassware (sculptures, vases etc.), knitting and embroidery articles, fashion accessories, and much more (including some local food products). A great part of the products sold in the fair are handicraft made by local and regional residents who present their creations to visitors. Often it is possible to find in such fairs also vintage items from years past (e.g., cameras, radio sets, coins). Now, consider shopping, or hunting, these kinds of treasures in an online marketplace.

Etsy offers an online marketplace similar in concept as described above: it is a special type of e-commerce website for handcrafted and vintage goods, where the sellers are small and independent entrepreneurs who interact directly and sell their merchandise to buyers in the virtual marketplace of Etsy, and then ship the sold goods to their destinations. So a buyer will not find there food products (e.g., homemade jams or local cheese) but he or she can find on Etsy.com a great variety of handmade and vintage goods beyond what is usually presented in any single physical fair (e.g., larger items of furniture that are more difficult to bring to a physical fair). It is not the same experience as strolling between counters in a physical fair, looking for ‘treasures’, but browsing handcrafted and vintage goods in an online marketplace like Etsy offers its own advantages and opportunities in  (almost) immediate access.

Etsy hosts 2.3 million active sellers (all must be registered members) and 47.2 million active buyers (membership is voluntary) as of the end of June 2019 (an increase of 17.7% and 19.3%, respectively, from same period last year). On Gross Merchandise Sales (GMS) of $2.1bn made in its marketplace in the first half of 2019, Etsy has generated a revenue of $350.4m (74% revenue from marketplace fees and 26% from seller services). While GMS increased by 20% from H1/2018, revenue increased by almost 40% (Etsy, Press Release, 1 August 2019). The company provides a platform for a community of sellers to trade their handcrafted creations or vintage goods worldwide. The ‘community’ is a cornerstone of its whole activity. Etsy also cherishes interactions between people (“connecting humans”) as the basis for commerce — its headline calling is to “Keep Commerce Human”. While the company is aiming to maintain the intimacy, reliability and convenience customers expect from a community, it wants to provide these benefits with the efficiency of a large corporation [Fortune: A; Etsy: About]. Making those ends meet seems like a non-negligible challenge.

Shopping for handmade products or vintage products has a special motif: it often gives consumers the feeling of treasure hunting. The pleasure in finding sought-for products as such only increases as they become less common in the world of modern (automated) production and marketing. The product item has to be useful, yet an emotional appeal can be further more important as a driver for buying the product.

Handicrafts are desired for being perceived authentic and genuine. People value the talent, skills and effort invested in their making. They like the human touch in both making the product and personally selling it to them by the person who made the product. Moreover, many of the handmade products are artisanal (e.g., woodwork, glasswork) and may exhibit an exceptional quality. Buying such a product is often considered a gesture of appreciation and a way of making a contribution to the creator.  Vintage products (especially from 1920s to 1960s) may hold a somewhat different attraction: They are associated with the past period of time they originate from (e.g., nostalgia, personal memories from childhood); different, possibly higher standards of quality; different ways of doing things (e.g., listening to music, cooking, taking photos); and vintage ‘treasures’ are also likely to be much less available in the market and even being rare. Vintage products may be handcrafted but that is neither a requirement nor their main source of value to the prospect buyers. (Note: Handcrafted artefacts may be made using just low-tech machinery and tools).

The pages on the website of Etsy appear spacious and bright. Items (text bodies, pictures) are placed over a white background, and the pages do not seem to be condensed and crowded with them. Some areas may be painted in pastel colours (e.g., as background for text on the homepage). This design endows the website with a soft and light feeling, and makes it easier for the eye to move around and observe product listings, pictures and other information on pages. There are very few product listings with images on the homepage, used for illustration rather than out-right promotion; a ribbon with images of products most recently viewed by the visitor appears on top of the homepage and on other pages, exercising relevance and convenience.

Six main categories are displayed in the top menu: Jewelry & Accessories; Clothing & Shoes; Home & Living; Wedding & Party; Toys & Entertainment; and Art & Collectibles. A drop-down menu with sub-categories can be ‘pulled’ from each of these main category items. However, on category pages the visitor also can see tiles for subcategories with sample images, and a sample of product listings in the category. Visitors can narrow down their search by using a key list on the left-hand side of the screen. For any category and sub-category, a visitor-shopper can choose to see all available products in that class or select to focus on either handmade or vintage products in that class (an additional item on the top menu labeled Vintage allows quick access for those interested only in vintage products).

Three basic information elements appear on each product page: a title describing the product, price, and a photo image. In addition, three more components are noteworthy: (1) Handmade products (e.g., a TV stand with cabinet, mid-century modern, made of oak wood) are accompanied by a description on materials and ways of their application, modes of use, design trend, dimensions, etc. For vintage products (e.g., antique Teddy Bear from the 1930s, Dutch Arthur van Gelden), the viewer may find a background story on the artefact, materials, history, any versions if available, etc. (2) Sellers offering their own handmade goods may provide options for personalisation (e.g., first name, a phrase, and photograph in picture frames and displays) and customization (e.g., type of wood, surface finish- colour and texture , size, and extra features for furniture). Furthermore, additional images may show the product from different angles and in different versions that can be customized to the preference of the prospect buyer. (3) The page is set to include reviews contributed by buyers regarding the product purchased and any aspects of their relationships of exchange with the seller.

The complementary information in words and pictures may fulfill an important role in persuading visitors who view a product page to complete a purchase order. Giving a visitor the flexibility to make adjustments (modest as they may be) to the product to better fit his or her needs and preferences can only strengthen the shopper’s conviction to buy. Victor Yocco (‘A List Apart’, 1 July 2014) well-explains in his article key implications of the central and peripheral routes to persuasion (in the Elaboration Likelihood Model [B]) for e-commerce websites. He stresses the importance of including cues that may be applied at different levels by visitors who browse pages, process and evaluate product offerings through a central route or peripheral route. In the case of Etsy, we may distinguish between visitors who get their impressions and make judgement based on the images and reviews, and perhaps use price also as a cue for quality (peripheral route), and those visitors who extensively and carefully consider the technical details and background of the product offered, and may also inspect the images provided in greater attention (central route).

Etsy enables prospect buyers to engage in conversation with sellers and make queries before a purchase, and it encourages such interactions (e.g., buyers tell in their reviews about satisfying enquiries they have had with sellers who were particularly helpful in their responses). Sellers can use a community forum to consult and discuss any matters that concern their activities from craftmanship to e-commerce. Furthermore, Etsy publishes workshops it offers to sellers in different disciplines of craftmanship, and a special section of the website is dedicated to craft supplies and tools, thus extending its hand to help entrepreneurs-sellers in their creative work. Shipping, however, is in the responsibility of the sellers, and trust between them and their buyers-customers can be particularly crucial at that stage of the exchange.

Some recent initiatives taken by Etsy could be a more delicate matter and a source of friction. For instance, the company started encouraging sellers in the US to offer free shipping in the country. It provides some guidance and assistance in shipping, but a question hangs as to how Etsy actually facilitates and makes it easier for American sellers to offer free shipping (e.g., does it give any ‘subsidy’ to the seller, or should the seller raise the product price, or absorb the extra cost alone?). Without practical support in shipping, the legitimacy of asking sellers to eliminate shipping costs is weak. Etsy has also taken action to improve the payment functionality. At first it was a matter of ensuring to buyers the confidentiality of their payment information. Next, however, sellers were required to use only the payment platform of Etsy. That has allowed Etsy to collect commissions that had previously gone to other payment providers. While this initiative helped in standardizing the checkout procedure and improved customer service, it also led to raising the commission rate sellers are charged from 3.5% of revenue per transaction to 5% [A]. A third initiative involves a new programme of advertising for sellers in co-operation with Google — sellers who join in an advertising plan can get their product offers promoted or prioritised inside the platform (e.g., in displays of product listings) and outside (i.e., in Google search results). This would create two classes of sellers that did not exist before.

Etsy under the leadership of its CEO Josh Silverman (since 2017) is set to put more emphasis on quality over price, reports Wahba in Fortune. At a time when online retail is primarily concerned with low prices and price promotions, it is suggested as remarkable that Etsy succeeded in cultivating loyalty. First, by its focus on handcrafted goods and small businesses, Etsy succeeded in making its marketplace feel like a community, but it still aims to deliver with greater business efficiency. Second, Etsy intends to give greater weight to higher-priced and better-quality products in search rankings (a change from how its search engine worked so far) with an aim to elevate the image of Etsy’s brand to an upscale status. Etsy also expects to encourage shoppers to level-up their purchases with complementary products (e.g., if one wishes to buy a lamp for a desk, consider also buying a desk). [A]

Etsy offers a special type of online commerce: bringing the richness, spirit and originality of a trade fair for handcrafted and vintage goods to consumers’ homes. It is not only the attraction of the goods, but also the experience of browsing collections and finding precious treasures, and the interaction with small businesses of independent entrepreneurs and creators (‘people more like us’ the shoppers might say). Etsy has seen success in improving its business performance since early 2018 and is ambitious to move ahead in strengthening its online marketplace. However, Etsy will have to take extra care not to lose the friendliness and comfort of its marketplace and community, for the pleasure of treasure hunting.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

 

Note:

[A] “Crafting a Comeback at Etsy”, Phil Wahba, Fortune (Europe Edition), August 2018 [Global 500], 180 (2), pp. 31-33

[B] “Central and Peripheral Routes to Advertising Effectiveness: The Moderating Role of Involvement”; Richard E. Petty, John T. Cacioppo, & David Schumann, 1983; Journal of Consumer Research, 10 (Sept.), pp. 135-146

 

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Consumers may develop attachment to product objects based on things such as attributes, experiences, or values they share. The emotional attachment comes about due to a personal meaning the product has for the consumer that is unique and special in some way. The concept of product attachment is well known in marketing and consumer behaviour, but it has been a difficult challenge to plan for attachment and to implement during the product design process. The researchers Orth, Thurgood, and van den Hoven (2018) explored the prospects of creating products that are designed to connect with consumers based on their self-identities and life stories [1].

In thinking about self-identity, we can apply different means by which we perceive and define ourselves as persons (“who I am”). The process of construing one’s identity may start with his or her personality traits (i.e., self-image), but it can be expanded by adding beliefs, goals and values in life, an overall view of life and a look for the future (identity may also be expressed through salient group affiliations: social, professional etc.). When a good match of a product with any of those aspects is found, it may become the foundation for a consumer’s attachment with the product. However, there is another avenue for forming product attachment by means of connecting through episodes and elements in one’s life story or narrative — experiences and special moments (memories), people, places, and other objects (e.g., ties to existing possessions).  Orth, Thurgood and van den Hoven follow this avenue to look for opportunities to create product objects that designated individuals would meaningfully connect with. They state their objective as “purposefully create meaning by evoking meaningful associations” from one’s life narrative or sense of self.

In a marketing context, brands rather than products per se would be the appropriate targets for attachment. Brands identify products. Yet furthermore, a brand, as an intangible entity, may hold associations beyond attributes linked directly to the physical product that the brand name is assigned to; the associations can extend to brand personality traits, values, heritage, and more. The quality of an attachment may be assessed by (a) the brand-self connection that is built (i.e., how well the brand’s associations agree with and corroborate an individual’s self-identity to the extent that the brand becomes part of one’s definition of his or her identity); and (b) the prominence of brand associations in memory (e.g., how significant they are, that is, they come instantly and automatically to mind) [2]. Orth and his colleagues, who focus on product design, do not step-up from the product- to the brand-level, although they do refer to aspects underlying attachment that extend beyond the materiality of the product.

The researchers applied a three-stage methodology: 

Inspiration is derived from the life stories of consumers through in-depth semi-structured interviews (with three participants) —  participants told the researchers about their life stories, including people and places that were involved, memorable experiences they have had, possessions they cherish, as well as their views on physical product properties such as colour, texture and materials.

Creation of artefacts (products), designed to capture associations linked to valued and meaningful experiences, people, places, etc. in the memories (life narrative) and sense of self of the consumers-participants. Two artefacts were especially designed and made for each participant. The objects stayed with participants for two weeks.

Evaluation of the meaning, value and emotional tie each consumer-respondent ascribes to those two artefacts, designed-to-fit associations from each one’s life experiences and self-identity (note that the participants were not told that the objects were ‘designed-to-fit’ personally for them). As a reference, each respondent was also asked about his or her perceptions of and emotional ties to an artefact designed for another participant and to possessions they own which they regard as significant to them.

The results obtained by Orth, Thurgood, and van den Hoven were mixed. With at least one product-artefact they successfully captured the expected match in associations for forming an attachment; for other artefacts they partially captured the associations that would predicate an attachment (e.g., an attachment was formed but based on associations different from those expected); and in the case of at least one artefact, the design was evidently inadequate in forming an attachment (i.e., practically being a miss). The results testify to the difficulty of identifying and anticipating associations that will serve as the meaningful bridge for forming an attachment, even when quite detailed  information about the consumers to draw from is available.

Louise was offered a transparent candle cover (‘Diramu’) with silhouette of native Australian trees; the candle had a scent of smoky campfire.  It was intended to be reminiscent of her childhood in an area surrounded by bushland in Australia, where she had played frequently, but there was concern it would bring up less pleasant, disturbing memories of the struggle to keep bushfires away from her family’s home. Nevertheless, the designed Diramu managed to capture a ‘soft spot’ in the memories of Louise for bushfires (i.e., the bushfire was pleasant, not scary, and the candle’s scent had a feeling of home).

A partial success was obtained in cases as these: (a) Alex liked a porcelain decanter (‘Kiruna’) designed for him due to its fine aesthetics (attractive, elegant) and delicacy that he appreciates and favours.  But the decanter reminded him of the colours of Greece (white and blue) rather than his winter activities and skiing vacations with his children as intended. (b) Karen received a pendant necklace (‘Crater’) with a shiny anthracite coal that would resemble a gemstone. She found it ‘quite nice’ and she ‘quite liked it’. However, she grew no attachment to the object in spite of her affectionate memories of her father as a coal miner in England. The cue of coal failed to transfer the emotional significance regarding her father to the Crater artefact. The researchers admitted that they missed the completely functional attitude and emotional indifference of Karen towards objects, as they discovered it only in the evaluation stage.

The special world clock device (‘Globe’) prepared for Alex in conjunction with his many travels did not meet the expectations. Alex started developing a passion for travels during childhood in Australia and extended it to travels overseas in adulthood through his work; he likes connecting with people in different countries and collecting souvenirs (e.g.,  refined art objects, books and paintings). The Globe was made to show the names of places around the world (e.g., cities) at the time each location, according to its time zone, enjoys a Happy Hour for evening drinks. However, the name title of places turned out to be too weak as a cue to link to specific experiences. Alex commented that while many of the cities mentioned reminded him of some wonderful memories from his being there, “that thing doesn’t reflect those”. The clock design apparently also did not appeal to Alex (e.g., too simplistic, not to his aesthetic standards, and even stopped functioning after a while), leaving a negative impression on him.

The names as cues were probably too general and vague to trigger meaningful associations from the respective places; perhaps photographic images would have helped, but they too should prove personally relevant to Alex. Neither the informational cues (names) nor the design of the Globe artefact corresponded meaningfully with memories and associations of Alex from his travels, and thus according to Orth et al., it can be argued that the artefact was lacking authenticity for Alex.

  • Fournier (1998) studied the life narratives of consumers through in-depth interviews, though in her research the aim was to trace anchors for developing relationships between consumers and brands. That is, she learned from the products-in-use in the lives of three research participants about the roles that the brands of those products played in their lives and how bonds could be created with the brands based on the rich meanings they received [3]. The contribution of Orth and his colleagues is special in their attempt to leverage the information obtained about the life narratives of consumers into actual product objects designed specifically for those same consumers.

Realistically, companies cannot gather so detailed and personal information from too many consumers to enable them to design a product that will fit particular aspects from the life narrative or self-identity of each consumer. Orth, Thurgood and van den Hoven spoke to just three consumers and they had varied levels of success in anticipating the associations upon which attachment would be formed.

One direction they suggest, borrowing from previous research, is to create a set of optional product designs (versions) that would confer meaningfully to different target groups of consumers. In other words, each design could contain cues that any particular consumer may connect through to his or her idiosyncratic associations so as to develop an emotional attachment to the product object. This may suggest the importance that prevails in studying the lifestyles, values and psychographics of consumers (using surveys) in order to create the knowledge base necessary for designing personally meaningful product models. Nevertheless, this kind of information may never be as intricate and deep as the life stories studied by Orth and his colleagues. Finding personal meaning in products (and brands) could remain in the domain of the consumers based on what they know about themselves and their past experiences in life.

Another direction is to give consumers an active role in self-designing a product customised for each individual consumer who takes part in such a scheme. The consumer first has to choose what type of product is wanted; then he or she can choose features or properties (e.g., aesthetic-visual, functional) that may be perceived by each one as effective cues to trigger meaningful associations. The aim of self-designing a product in this context is self-expression and connecting to one’s experiences and self-identity, not strictly satisfying one’s utilitarian preferences. In typical schemes of mass customization consumers are constrained by the capabilities and willingness of companies to make the products of their designs. But in the age of 3D printing, consumers may gain greater authority, freedom and flexibility to design and create products to fit more closely the way they perceive and feel about themselves. Orth et al. put it this way: “Advancements in custom manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing provide growing opportunities for bespoke design practices such as those presented in this paper as an alternative to traditional mass production processes” (p. 101).

Orth, Thurgood and van den Hoven set two conditions for designing objects (products) with meaningful associations: (1) Cueing Meaning —  the product object has to cue an aspect of identity of the consumer that is personally significant or meaningful (e.g., the Kiruna made of porcelain related to an aspect of identity, ‘ceramics man’, not significant enough to Alex whereas the Diramu representing bushfires connected to an aspect of experience of ‘a pleasant bushfire’ uniquely meaningful to Louise); (2) Authentic Embodiment —  the consumer has to perceive the way a product object cues an association as authentic for it to elicit its personal meaningfulness (i.e., the consumers “must perceive the object to successfully embody the associated source”, hence establishing an authentic linkage between the object and source) (e.g., the Globe failed in relating authentically to the travels of Alex).

Product designers, with the help of design researchers, can go quite a long distance towards consumers in designing products that will be more meaningful to them, but they have to know and respect their limits in approaching consumers close enough. The difficulty is mainly in anticipating the associations that will be perceived by an individual consumer as relevant and significant to be the basis for forming an attachment, and then capture it in an authentic way. As Orth, Thurgood and van den Hoven phrase it, designers should acknowledge that they are “limited to creating possibilities instead of certainties in any attempt to design for product attachment” (p. 100). The task of finding a meaning in a product neither has to be relegated fully to the consumer. It should be a shared endeavour in which the designers recommend products and provide sufficient informed cues to meaningful associations, whereon consumers can detect and choose which ones in a product design truly matter to their self-identity and life experiences; and if technology allows, the consumers may be given even a more active role in creating such design cues meaningful to them.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

[1] “Designing Objects with Meaningful Associations“; Daniel Orth, Clementine Thurgood, & Elise van den Hoven (2018); International Journal of Design, 12 (2), pp. 91-104. (Images of the artefacts can be seen in the article here).

[2] “Brand Attachment and Brand Attitude Strength: Conceptual and Empirical Differentiation of Two Critical Brand Equity Drivers”; C. Whan Park, Deborah J. MacInnis, Joseph Priester, Andreas B. Eisingerich, & Dawn Iacobucci (2010); Journal of Marketing, 74 (November), pp. 1-17

[3] “Consumers and Their Brands: Developing Relationship Theory in Consumer Research”; Susan Fournier (1998); Journal of Consumer Research, 24 (4), pp. 343-373

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Everything happens faster in the fashion world. Fashion houses and retailers have to deal with an increasingly turbulent market wherein trends and tastes fluctuate all the time and design styles replace each other in ever shorter cycles. This instability means greater uncertainty for firms, which makes it harder for them to plan and operate through the year. Attempting to curb the motion and introduce more stability can be a serious challenge for the fashion designers, marketers and retailers; the stream is strong, and more often it seems that everyone has to continue flowing to the next fashion style. Retailers with physical stores face an additional challenge from strengthening e-commerce — consumers prefer to buy more clothing items online, especially from whatever source and channel they can find them at lower prices.

Castro is a leading fashion house and retailer in Israel with over 130 stores carrying its name (i.e., Castro, Castro Men, and Castro Kids) across the country. The Castro company  was established by Aharon Castro in 1950. Its retail start was modest, and the business continued to be primarily a fashion house, designing and making garments (for women only), until the late 1980s. In 1985 the founder opened a flagship store on the modern Dizengof shopping street of Tel-Aviv; that may be considered a first brave move to lift-up the image of the Castro fashion brand and earn it more publicity.

In the early 1990s Aharon Castro passed the realm of the company to his son-in-law Gabriel (Gaby) Rotter, joined later by his daughter Esther (Etty) Rotter, and they have been serving as co-CEOs since then. The second period of Castro is marked by the great expansion of the retail arm of the business. More and more stores were opened in the 1990s and 2000s (Castro also made a venture abroad, mainly in Germany, but it was unsuccessful and largely cut-off). In this period the prevailing brand image of Castro was also invented, which gave it fame and appreciation. The last decade has seen more acquisitions of fashion enterprises (clothing and accessories) made by the company, but these do not carry the Castro name and therefore have less bearing on the Castro brand. In summer 2018 Castro merged with the fashion group Hoodies, and the repercussion of this move is yet to be seen, whether the brands mix or remain separated.

Listed below are selected actions that contributed more significantly to establish the prime attributes associated with Castro, exciting and daring, since the 1990s:

Castro aired a famed TV commercial in 1993 that was daring, playful and igniting the imagination — it is best simply to watch it.  Two more facts make this commercial special: (a) It was aired in the beginning of commercial TV in Israel, when the audience was highly curious and interested in advertising in this medium, which helped the commercial to become a “hit”; (b) The song featuring in the commercial was Creep by Radiohead, during the early stage of its musical career, so the commercial gave a unique exposure to Radiohead in Israel. Definitely in those days this Castro commercial was unusual and exciting (until today it is the most loved commercial in the country); it drove great attention and interest in the coats and other clothing products of Castro, and put it on a trail of growth.

In the early 1990s Castro moved into the pivotal shopping centre of Tel-Aviv (Dizengof Centre). Moreover, Castro situated its store near the entrance to the major department store of that time (HaMashbir), a sound call of challenge. A decade later, in 2003, Castro relocated within the shopping centre and opened its flagship store Castro Tel-Aviv, occupying three floors, with an external façade that turns to a strategic corner of streets with high exposure — a strong declaration of their presence. At least for several years it was an important anchor in the shopping centre.

Castro gradually started to enter clothes for men into its stores. Over time the fashion house expanded the scope of its target segments to become a marketer and retailer of clothing for men and women, youth and kids. On the retail side, Castro made two key moves: in 2000 it launched its sub-chain of Castro Men stores, and in 2013 the Castro Kids sub-chain of stores came to life. Perhaps already less exciting to consumers, but they are still daring moves (a demonstration of force).

However, the expansion of Castro’s activities, particularly adding stores to its retail chain, seems to have taken a toll from the company. It is hard to put a finger on a single factor as the cause of recent troubles at Castro. It appears, yet, that the toll has hit primarily Castro as a fashion house. From some point in the passing decade, consumers have been losing interest in the garments of Castro. In earlier decades, Castro led by its founder gained a reputation for creativity, for bringing new designs and quality fabrics (important especially in the 1960s and 1970s, credit going also to Aharon’s mother Nina). Consumers may have stopped believing that Castro’s clothing expresses creativity, novelty and ingenuity. Nonetheless, the needs and tastes of Israeli consumers apparently have changed, and they are looking for something different in fashion and clothing, which also happens to be less original and less expensive clothing.

Firstly, consumers buy more frequently from a variety of online retailers (‘e-tailers’), on top of them is Amazon.com, while getting easy access to broad selections of clothing from abroad at affordable prices. Consumers also are willing to pay less for garments, shoes and accessories of lower quality even if they would have to replace them more frequently. They further tend to inspect garments in physical stores and then buy the same or similar items from online stores. Yet another threatening competition to Castro comes from quick-movers, discount retailers like Zara and H&M that produce and sell garments of similar designs as those of known fashion houses (though they may have some original clothes). A more discomforting revelation of recent years is that a low cost retailer (Fox) is gaining in popularity while Castro is sliding down. The stores of Castro see less traffic of visitors (footfall), thus stores are too quiet for extended periods, and the sellers have too much ‘free time’ to arrange merchandise; a special report on public TV (Kan News, 4 May 2019, Hebrew) indicates that a growing pressure is put on sellers and other staff (e.g., visual merchandisers) to contribute to better results . Could it be that Israeli consumers find the design of stores less attractive; is the visual merchandising in-store less appealing to them; or is it the merchandise itself losing its appeal? We should not overlook the influence of background factors such as changes in the code of dressing (more casual, ‘dressing-down’, sportive) and economic constraints on consumers’ shopping behaviour in clothing and fashion.

  • In 2018 Castro saw overall a loss of 59 million shekels (~$16m), after a net gain of 48m shekels in 2017 and in 2016, and operating profit on clothing has dropped 66%. Additionally, sales of clothing in same stores of Castro+Hoodies fell 7.7% in 2018, above average rate in this sector (Globes, 5 May 2019, Hebrew — this article follows the report on Kan News).

A few ideas may be learned from the American department store chain Kohl’s that is taking dramatic measures in its effort for resurgence, led by CEO Michelle Gass [A]. Some of these measures may be relevant also to Castro, and could suggest directions for the transformation it may also be required of:

Kohl’s is reducing the amount of merchandise displayed in its stores, and is also decreasing the selling space of stores. On the other hand, the retailer installed an advanced inventory technology that allows it to track its merchandise on display at any time (by using RFID tags on product items), and follow purchase data (including online) and analyse it. Hence staff at Kohl’s can predict what products are in greater demand and what merchandise is in need of replenishing in real time, enabling to display less merchandise with no disadvantage.

Furthermore, Kohl’s  developed a capability to trace changes in market trends faster and cut the time needed to deliver new designs to stores (i.e., shorter time-to-market).

Kohl’s introduces new technologies in its stores to improve the service to shoppers and their in-store experience overall, including handheld checkout devices to cut waiting lines at cashiers, and digital price screens that can be updated with less hassle for staff; in addition, the RFID tags aforementioned enable staff to help customers quickly find products they seek (mirrors with holograms or augmented reality may come later).

  • Kohl’s has taken another intriguing step: orders from Amazon can be returned at desks in a hundred of its stores (out of 1,100+ stores). Critics and skeptics regarded this co-operation akin to “sleeping with the enemy” or “bringing a fox into the henhouse”. However, Gass sees in providing this service at Kohl’s stores an opportunity whereby Amazon’s customers already in a store may choose to buy some products they see around, similar to the case when Kohl’s customers who use its “click & collect” scheme at Kohls.com online store later come to pick-up the order at a physical store.

Castro announced recently that it plans to enlarge and redesign some of its stores. Castro Store TelAviv in GanHaIrPerhaps its management should re-consider enlarging stores. Does Castro really need to have stores as large as those of Zara and H&M (1000sqm+)? This may not be effective in terms of (lower) revenue per squared metre [B]. The stores can also be arranged to be more spacious between display exhibits and hold less merchandise, provided that information technology can be used to monitor it cleverly. Redesigning stores may indeed be welcome — current stores could feel too dark-toned with selective spot lights, which may be perceived more elegant but less convenient. Existing large stores may be reduced somewhat, or perhaps may better allocate space to other purposes like special projects (e.g., gallery of new art designs in fashion), a coffee bar or hosting events that may be more interesting than a space loaded with more products [cf. A].  Greater attention should be drawn to the experience that can be generated for visitors in-store.

Another issue concerns the image and experience delivered by the website and online store of Castro. Is the online store not advanced and rich enough? Will more exclusive online offers make the difference? [cf. B] What kind of experience should the website and online store present to visitors? Entering the e-commerce website overly feels like entering a catalogue. The e-store has some nice features like a model’s image changing position when hovering above with the mouse to show the garment from another angle, or being able to see the same garment in different colours. Yet the website appears nothing more than an e-commerce website; it misses something more important — it obscures Castro as a fashion house. The story of Castro and its creations is practically hidden, hard to find. When entering the website, it should communicate the image of the brand Castro — show original designs of the fashion house before start selling. The website should clearly show the “door” to the online store but right next to it should appear the “door” to Castro the fashion house and its story.

Eventually, the garments designed and created by Castro are the main issue to address. This should be an important point of differentiation for Castro from other retailers on which it should make its voice loud and clear. For example, prior to her role as CEO of Kohl’s, Gass identified the rise of the trend of activewear (sportive-energy) style in clothing; she gave it more emphasis in stores with the help of national brands like Nike and Adidas. Castro has a category (online) of Activewear. On the one hand, it can make its voice by introducing its own designs in this category. On the other hand, it should not go only after what seems popular at a time but suggest other modes or styles to the market.

Castro seems to lack sub-brands or endorsed brands up front that consumers can easily identify and associate certain styles or attributes with them (e.g., more daring or novel vs. more conservative, more artful vs. more functional). Castro is said to hire top-of-class young designers. Yet it does not elevate anyone as house designers by name, perhaps to encourage more collegiality and teamwork. An alternative approach would be to build a brand around a team of designers (like a “centre of excellence”) who share a certain vision and approach in fashion styles. Actually Castro already has three sub-brands: “Red” for casual dressing; “Blue” for more elegant, quasi-formal dressing; and “Black” for jeans wear. Castro can develop and enrich any of these sub-brands; create another brand with a specific style or tone of design as a secondary “specialisation” under any of those above; or build a new brand endorsed directly by the Castro name that will express new forms of art, novelty or elegance, etc. Whatever course taken, the leading idea is to give consumers a ‘name & face’ they can cling to, to follow how it evolves, and to identify with.

There are multiple avenues for Castro to reinvent and revive its brand and business as a whole. The expansion of its retailing activities may have led to the weakening of its fashion house and dilution of its brand. Some of the enterprises Castro acquired or merged with could hurt the brand to the extent that they are stopping Castro from developing answers in-house to gaps in the market. Therefore, it is perhaps the time now to return to increase the focus on Castro the fashion house as in earlier times, and let the retail arm serve it, not the other way round. Castro should be ready to enter its third period; the challenge will likely be assigned to the new Deputy CEO lately nominated, Ron Rotter (son of Etty and Gaby Rotter and former CFO), to reinvent Castro and put the brand on a new course.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Additional Sources:

[A] “Michelle Gass Is Cracking the Code at Kohl’s”, Phil Wahba, Fortune (Europe Edition), December 2018, pp. 104-112.

[B] “Castro Once Was the Most Sexy Brand in Israel, But These Days Are Gone” (origin in Hebrew), TheMarker, 12 April 2019 (MarkerWeek edition), pp. 14-16

 

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Online shopping in digital stores and shopping in brick-and-mortar stores offer different forms of experiences. It starts from the environment or setting in which the shopper is situated — being present in a 3D physical retail space or viewing a 2D screen of a computer or mobile device. It is the difference between how much and what specifically a shopper can see and absorb when looking around in a physical store compared with looking at a screen. The difference in setting may have a further impact on behaviour, like how shoppers find products and how they inspect them.

Imagine a shopper, Dan, entering a large fashion store. Dan’s head immediately turns around as much as 180 degrees scanning the scene. Just a few steps in front of Dan there is a low desk with shirts, and another desk with sweaters to the left; to the right Dan observes shirts hanging on a rectangle-shaped stand, and he notices how their designs differ from those on the desk; along the walls are more shirts and trousers, etc. Dan decides to approach first the shirts to the left because they have multiple colours, lifting one or two to look more closely at them; later he also turns to the wall to see trousers and tries to match them with shirts. As Dan’s shopping trip advances he may enter deeper into the store to check on some accessories or another variety of shirts. Very early in the visit the shopper can figure out what may be found in main sections of the scene. Then starts a sort of discovery tour that may be guided by a master goal but progresses as the shopper identifies relevant and visually attractive items (stimuli). The scene is ‘updated’ as the shopper goes deeper into the store, or into adjacent halls, and details that were more distant and vague before become sharper and clearer.

A different kind of shopping process usually occurs in online website stores: first of all because much fewer products (stimuli) can be observed in a relatively short glimpse of the screen-scene. The way merchandise in the online store is located and explored is much more gradual.  An online store actually encourages a more goal-driven search process (e.g., choosing names of categories from a menu, selecting attribute options to narrow down the search to a relevant selection of products). Then starts a back-and-forth process of exploration of different items (e.g., by clicking on item titles or images and entering product pages), and visiting additional major categories of products. However, the experience of search and exploration is so different: whereas in the physical store the shopper can ‘wash the eyes’ with shapes, designs and colours of products, and follow the eyes through the shopping trip, it is much harder to do so in an online store where one has to go step-by-step or in a piecemeal manner. Nevertheless, online shoppers have more flexibility and a wider span of possibilities for viewing product options simultaneously on the screen of a desktop or laptop computer than on the screen of a smartphone.

Certainly there are more clever and creative e-commerce or store websites that are able to generate an improved experience of exploration and inspection of products. For example, there are online stores that show grids composed of tiles of images representing major categories and sub-categories of products. The images are more lively, and some of them exhibit motion as well. With some images, hovering with a mouse on the product photo (before clicking) changes the angle in which a garment or handbag, for instance, is shown. On product pages, some options may be selected that immediately affect the product image (e.g., colours, dimensions, designs); products may be rotated dynamically or by selecting from a line of static thumbnail images under the main frame.

A large majority of shoppers enquire about products online before visiting a physical store. According to a Google/Ipsos survey (‘Omnichannel Holiday Study’, Nov. 2017-Jan. 2018), 78% of US holiday shoppers searched products before going into a store; the online search helps shoppers in planning their shopping trip to the store, narrow down the options they should be seeking at the store, but it also ‘inspires the purchase’ (thinkwithgoogle.com, October 2018). In another research by Publicis (‘Shopper First Retailing’, 2018), an even higher proportion of shoppers, 87%, report that they begin searches in digital channels (online, mobile), up from 71% in 2017 (RetailDive.com, 15 August 2018). Searching the Internet is regarded as a productive method to look for directions and learning about product options, as preparation for making purchase decisions. Shoppers do not feel obliged also to make the purchase online, even if they browse the e-commerce website of an online-only retailer (‘e-tailers’) or of a mixed retailer that operates both a website store and physical stores. Consumers like especially to consult reviews of peer users who have already had experience with products they consider.

This learning process seems functional and goal-driven where shoppers need some guidance to put order into their shopping journey. Online sources, including e-commerce websites, seem to provide an efficient solution for this purpose. The process may indeed inspire shoppers with ideas, perhaps to the extent of helping the shopper to focus on viable and worthwhile purchase options and avoid wandering too long clueless in a store. In such a case in particular, visiting the online store of a mixed retailer can prove most useful before arriving to one of its physical store locations — and this makes the website an even more effective tool for the retailer.

However, retailers that operate physical stores would not want shoppers to come too prepared with their minds pre-determined what to buy. While shoppers usually have a general plan of what they are looking for, final purchase decisions are still made mostly in-store. Hence it is so important for physical stores to be designed and arranged in an appealing and stimulating manner — to allow consumers to complete successfully their shopping trip in-store, and furthermore encourage and induce them to purchase a few more ‘treasures’ they discover in the store.

It may be relevant to consider here two scenarios:

For retailers that operate physical stores in multiple, even numerous locations, there should be a stronger incentive to leave their customers with enough reasons to conclude their shopping in-store rather than on the website store. Thus, the online store has to be visually attractive, user-friendly and informative, but it does not have to be fully equipped with features that convince customers to complete their shopping and purchasing online. The website should not go all the way in effort to draw shoppers from physical stores. Whereas the online store may provide more functional, productive experiences (e.g., efficient, time-saving), the physical store would be more capable in creating pleasant emotional experiences (e.g., excitement, thrill, joy). The positive emotions invoked should not be taken lightly because they drive purchases.

For e-tailers with no physical stores there should be greater need to invest in the quality and feel of experiences they can provide in their e-commerce websites. The introduction of shoppers to the online store should be more delightful as well as informative and user-friendly. Visual elements and interactive features have to be inviting and helpful in guiding the visitor into different sections of the store — on the ‘main stage’ of the screen estate and not just through the menu and search engine.

The latter applies, nonetheless, also to mixed retailers that have stores in just a few locations (e.g., major cities) and wish to reach much greater numbers of customers that do not have a store near them. It may also be relevant when targeting customer segments who for any reason have little time free to travel to a store, and in regions where shoppers are reluctant to go out during harsh weather conditions (e.g., steaming hot and dusty or freezing cold and snowy). [Note: Location data might be used to channel a reduced or enhanced version of a store website according to whether the user is in vicinity of a physical store by the retailer, a form of ‘geo-fencing’].

Delicatessen in Gstaad

The brick-and-mortar stores remain very much in demand. According to a Google/Ipsos online survey (‘Shopping Tracker’, US, April-June 2018), 61% of American shoppers prefer shopping with brands that also have physical stores than ones that are online only. Key benefits suggested for shopping in physical stores are the immediacy in which shoppers are likely to obtain the products they require; getting hands-on — seeing and interacting with products before buying; and being more fun than shopping online (35% feel so) (thinkwithgoogle.com, John McAteer, November 2018). The Publicis study indicates more generally that 46% of shoppers prefer to buy in physical stores (vis-à-vis 35% who prefer shopping using their laptops and 18% on mobile phones) (RetailDive). Apparently, shoppers are not blind to benefits and advantages of shopping in physical stores over online stores, and many are not ready to leave them to fade out.

It is not suggested that online stores necessarily have to be made to appear like physical stores on the screen — mimicking the scene of a brick-and-mortar store may be perceived as just artificial, awkward and inconvenient (though retailers who also have physical locations can integrate actual store images into relevant sections of the online store). On the one hand, the retailer (or e-tailer) should take advantage of the strengths of the digital medium in organising, displaying and tracing information in the online store. On the other hand, online stores may have to breakaway in some degree from rigid structures of tables, lists and matrices. Grids of image tiles make a good start. Yet, more versatile visualisation possibilities have to be considered to provide visitors of store websites (or mobile apps) a more stimulating presentation of the variety of products the store has to offer. The interactive presentation should expose visitors to an array of products available (e.g., by type, use purpose, or brand), and lead their way from there into sub-categories and specific product models or brands.

  • Virtual Reality (VR) technology may be used to emulate a view of a store in 3D space, but the equipment needed to create a truly compelling experience is not in reach of most consumers, at least not yet. The more crucial question is: why should consumers prefer an imitation or illusion when almost everyone can visit real physical stores and shops. At least one aspect VR is unlikely to provide adequately is the social experience.

Instead of treating online shopping and shopping in physical stores as substitutes competing with each other, the more sensible approach for mixed retailers is to create ways in which they can combine and complement each other. The connection can be a two-way street, especially given that shoppers use mobile devices more frequently during store visits (71% of shoppers according to Publicis study cited by RetailDive). From online to store, for example, a mobile app of the retailer used in-store can help the shopper navigate and find the way to the places of products that he or she detected and learned about in a preliminary search and study online (e.g., Home Depot). From in-store to online, the shopper may use the app of the retailer in-store to find more information about products found in the store by scanning a barcode for the product of interest (e.g., Sephora [cosmetics] allows access to product reviews, order history of the shopper, and more) [examples adopted from McAteer in thinkwithgoogle]. More technologies that help in bridging between the virtual and physical domains of shopping include beacons and augmented reality (AR).

  • There are other areas not covered above in which online shopping is distinguished from in-store shopping and require more attention, such as customer service, specifically providing advice and assistance to shoppers, and the fulfillment of orders (a ‘click-and-collect’ programme is another way of linking the physical and online stores).

The physical and digital (virtual) domains have each their strengths in creating different forms of shopping experiences. Physical stores and shops have built-in advantages in evoking emotional experiences while shopping — they are tangible and more direct, can provide good personal care, and may attract and excite shoppers by means of interior design and visual merchandising in their physical spaces. Furthermore, beyond vision, physical stores allow shoppers to enact other senses (e.g., touch, smell) that cannot be experienced in the digital domain. It is unsure how much a store website (or app) can give rise to a similar emotional experience and attachment in shoppers, yet there are aspects that can be borrowed into the digital domain that would make it seem not just functional but also more appealing and immersive. Nonetheless, mixed retailers may have the best opportunity to combine the strengths from the physical and digital domains and link them to produce shopping experiences that are more productive and enjoyable altogether.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

 

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Many companies are well-known to consumers by their corporate names, including manufacturers, chain retailers and service providers. The corporate name may serve as the leading brand identifier (like an ‘umbrella’ name) for the company’s products or services. But furthermore the corporate-level brand name is the gate to access the organisation’s image as held in the public opinion of consumers. In the last decade companies are increasingly judged by their values, culture, and market and public conduct. Consumers are more strongly influenced in their choice of products or services of a company by what they think of and how they feel towards its corporate brand.

A Tel-Aviv-based strategic management consulting firm, TACK, constructed a two-dimension metric for assessing the image strength (or sturdiness) of companies in Israel. The metric comprises a rational-oriented ‘pillar’ named Logic and an affective-driven ‘pillar’ called Magic. Each dimension of the image strength metric is measured by two (rating-scale) items.

Logic represents how much a company is appreciated by consumers, and to what extent the company makes it worthwhile for consumers to be its customers.

Magic expresses how much a company is loved by consumers, and to what extent consumers believe that the company cares about its customers.

Magic pertains to the emotional ties between the company and its customers and is therefore particularly important to the relationships built by a company with the customers. We cannot underestimate the importance of the logical or cognitive-based evaluation of the company, by weighing its advantages and disadvantages, as the basis for the interest and preference consumers show in using the company’s products and services. However, reasoned appreciation of the company and its offerings will likely not hold-up a relationship without developing an attachment to the corporate-name brand.

TACK applied its Logic & Magic metric for the third continuous year in 2019 to 71 Israeli companies (e.g., food producers, retail chains, telecom service providers, banks). Measures were collected in a survey of 503 adult Israeli consumers (Hebrew-speaking). The companies are not necessarily managed purely as a ‘branded house’; however, this study is not concerned with additional brands owned by the company (e.g., brands that may be endorsed by the corporate brand name or products positioned as sub-brands). The demonstrated mappings of corporate brands (in Hebrew), along the dimensions of Logic and Magic, bring forward some sobering realizations shared below:

Firstly, it is noticeable that, from a consumer perspective, companies that are doing better on the logical-functional front are also more successful on the emotional front, and thus are doing better overall in connecting with consumers. We cannot conclude from this a cause-and-effect relation. But the findings do suggest that a wise strategy that is sensitive to consumers (i.e., it sees things through the eyes of consumers) can win on both fronts. In other words, a company as such that succeeds, through its strategy, in gaining the appreciation of consumers for its performance and advantages of its products and services, is also likely to win the affection, trust and approach of the consumers.

There are hardly any corporate brands that seem to get a high score on Logic but relatively lack in their score on Magic, and vice versa. This implies that a company cannot sustain a ‘cold-minded’ appraisal of its performance and offerings while failing to win the hearts of its customers; and just as well, a company cannot sustain an affectionate connection with its customers without establishing the foundation of approval of its functional benefits to customers (e.g., being relevant and attractive). Nevertheless. it should be noted that the spread among corporate brands with relatively higher Logic and Magic scores is greater than among brands with relatively lower scores on both dimensions (there are more of them and they are more condensed). There is still much variability among the best performing companies — they are not consistently doing better in the same way.

Secondly, the quality of products and services is just one of the factors consumers likely consider in their logical-functional evaluations, and is possibly not the more prominent one. There seem to be large differences in perceived quality of the products of at least some of the companies or in the weight assigned to quality. Moreover, companies whose products appeal in their high quality or expertise to only a relatively small segment of consumers (a niche) seem to fall behind and do not come out favourably in this type of all-market brand rankings. It is not so surprising to realise that the stronger and leading corporate brands are those of companies that aim to fulfill the needs and preferences of the wider common base of the mass market.

Let us look at a few examples:

  1. In the category of retail food chains, a heavy discount retailer, Rami Levy, is positioned close to the top-right corner of the map (both in its category and overall) with high Logic and Magic scores, while a delicacy retailer Tiv Ta’am is at the bottom-left corner of the map. The two major food retail chains are in-between, one in the top-right quadrant (Shufersal) and the other in the bottom-left quadrant (Bittan [Mega]). Tiv Ta’am may bring better-quality products (e.g., fresh produce, imports of delicacies) than other food retailers, but its stores are considered too expensive, lucrative, and they are not liked. Rami Levy and Shufersal are listed among the Superbrands of Israel for 2018 in the retail category.
  2. In the category of coffee houses, we find in relatively high positions the low-cost, basic-service chain of Cofix, and the espresso-bar, self-service chain Aroma. In the worst position we find Arcaffe, an Italian-style chain of coffee bars serving fine coffee, sandwiches and other products, but it fails to receive the appreciation of the greater public for their offerings and service. Aroma is much more popular although their products and its serving standard are moderate. Yet Arcaffe is considered more ‘top-notch’, made for European-connoisseurs, and is relatively more expensive. Eventually, Aroma and Coffix are also much more emotionally appealing to Israeli consumers than Arcaffe. Roladin, a bakery and coffee-house chain, can be argued to be much closer in quality and service standard to Arcaffe than to Aroma; yet, Roladin is appreciated and considered worthwhile (Logic) similar to Aroma and is even a little more loved and cherished (Magic) than Aroma —  the advantage of Roladin over Arcaffe seems to be that they understand better what the greater part of Israelis like to eat and expect to find in a coffee-house for a light meal. Aroma and Roladin are listed among Israel’s Superbrands of 2018 (dining out) whereas Arcaffe is absent.
  3. In the media category, among the news press publishers, HaAretz holds a much lower position on both Logic and Magic than Israel HaYom; Yediot Aharonot is located closer to HaAretz. Two marked differences between them: (a) HaAretz is left-leaning (affiliated with the Guardian and New-York Times) and Yediot is oriented to the centre-left, whereas Israel HaYom is right-wing; (b) HaAretz is superior, especially in some areas, in quality of commentary and analysis to the two other newspapers (tabloid-fashioned). But the political left, and the HaAretz newspaper associated with it, are out of favour in recent years, and perhaps as a result the tolerance to its reporting by large circles of society is low, no matter its apparent news quality. [It is noted that all three also have a news website, though in the case of Yediot the online channel is branded separately as ‘ynet’ — it is positioned close and just a bit better than the press edition]. Yediot (+ynet) and Israel HaYom are listed in the media category of Israel’s Superbrands for 2018 but HaAretz is absent (its economics and business branch TheMarker is included).
  4. Interestingly, the researchers of TACK report that preference for Arcaffe and for Tiv Ta’am, each in its category, is stronger among consumers who describe themselves as leaning to the political left. The relevance of political attitudes to dining-out and food shopping is a little obscure, but it gives an indication of the portrayal of their more likely customers. More importantly, this research evidence amplifies the argument that corporate brands more entrenched in niches — like HaAretz, Arcaffe and Tiv Ta’am — are much less likely to be considered strong leading brands.

Thirdly, response to price and value perceptions are not free of an emotional loading. An economic approach views the calculation of value as a rational procedure of weighing the benefits and cost of a product or service offer. However, when an offer is judged as unfair to the disadvantage of the buyer, this may stir anger and resentment of the consumer in response to the price offer. The resentment is more often directed to the retailer, but it may be pointed towards the manufacturer of a national brand as well, depending on whom the consumer believes to be more responsible for a price differential or increase.

The judgement of unfair price differentials is contingent on the reference price used (e.g., a price paid by a friend for the same product at another store this week). In the case of a price increase, the reaction is subject to whether consumers can see justification to a price increase by attributing the increase in retail price to a rise in cost that retailers or manufacturers could not control (e.g., price of raw materials). In the past decade much resentment developed because consumers failed to find such justifications. Instead, the perception more accepted was that retailers and manufacturers were rolling their cost rises mostly to consumers, and they raised prices merely to improve their profits. In Israel this problem was evident especially in the food category where consumers were witnesses to continued feuds between the food chain retailers and manufacturers. More broadly, many Israeli consumers appear to these days to have little tolerance to retailers, service providers or manufacturers that seem to raise prices unfairly or try to position themselves to be more up-scale and luxurious — disappointment and anger at them motivates consumers to punish them in some way. This kind of resentment and urge to act in revenge is apparent also in the results of the study by TACK.

Price is given priority by more Israeli consumers, and it seems to overweight possible advantages in quality of products, services or the environment of shopping. In some cases consumers may fail to appreciate any such advantages while in others they simply consider the price premium as unjustified or unaffordable (which may add frustration to their evoked emotions). This can be another aspect that explains the differences between companies described above: (a) for instance, the gaps on Logic and Magic between coffee-house chains like Cofix and Aroma compared with Arcaffe,  and vis-à-vis Roladin, or (b) Rami Levi which is probably perceived as making greater effort to charge affordable prices (although it declined a little from last year), far better than a delicacy chain such as Tiv Ta’am. In other categories, it is more difficult to make clear inferences. In telecom services (mobile, TV, Internet), for example, all major companies receive relatively low appreciation and are less loved. A specialised dairy producer (Tara) is positioned less favourably than the two major and larger dairies (Tnuva and Strauss) which happened to be more shaken by consumer protests of several years ago (Tara is more preferred though among ages 55+ according to TACK). Among fashion retailers, a low-cost retailer of casual wear (Fox) is positioned just slightly higher on Logic but lower on Magic than some major main-stream retailers (H&M, Castro, Zara); yet another retailer (Renuar) that is probably somewhat more exclusive appears to be considered less worthwhile and having moderately less of magic (as reference, Polgat [for men], which has visibly better quality clothing, is not included).

The study of image strength by TACK sheds light on the relative positions in which consumers hold corporate brands both in their minds (Logic) and in their hearts (Magic).  It is somewhat surprising to find such a strong association between the logical-functional dimension and the affective dimension — it suggests that a company cannot sustain a positive stance on one dimension without the other for a long time. There is some discomfort also in realising that price could be more dominant than quality, but it is important to acknowledge how perceptions of value, and especially unfairness, can influence the emotional reaction of consumers to the corporate-level brands. Effectively, being attentive and sensitive to what the wider circles of consumers in the country need and expect to have is a key to be regarded overall as a favourable, strong leading brand.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)


Comment on Methodology:

The brand scores are given in percentages. More detailed values reported for 2017 help to understand the metric’s structure. The score on each dimension (Logic or Magic) seems to be calculated as the sum of the ‘top-box’ proportions for the two items it is composed of (e.g., % who give a rating of 6 or 7 on a 7-point Likert-type scale in agreement with each statement of Logic, where 25% on ‘appreciate’ + 20% on ‘worthwhile’ = 45% on Logic). However, summing up those percentages is not a proper procedure — this sum does not have a meaningful interpretation because the proportions cannot be accumulated. It would be correct to take their mean rather than the sum. Another valid option is to add-up the rating values of the pair of items for each respondent and then calculate the percentage who have given a total score on that dimension of above a threshold (e.g., a score on the index of Logic of above 12) in order to produce a score that may be more easily related to.

Reference on price fairness:

The Price is Unfair! A Conceptual Framework of Price Fairness Perceptions; Lan Xia, Kent B. Monroe, & Jennifer L. Cox (2004); Journal of Marketing, 68 (October), pp. 1-15.

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