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Dear Readers, In coming days the blog-site Consumer Gateway well be re-dressed. The format applied in the past decade (which I still like) has become outdated, and it also no longer supports new editing and design features. During the transition period disruptions may be caused to the look of some posts and pages; your patience and forgiveness will be much appreciated until I sort these out. I hope you find the new appearance pleasant to view and to read through. 


Brands can be imagined as signposts that help consumers navigate through their purchase decision processes. On many occasions brands simplify and shorten the decision process; a strong brand may show the consumer the route to an easier and safer choice decision. Over the years, symbolic (e.g., self-expression, self-image), social (e.g., status, relationship) and emotional meanings of brands gained more attention and emphasis in research and practice. However, we should not let those latter influences of brands overshadow or mitigate our recognition of the essential and useful role reserved for brands in organising and directing consumer decision-making.

An insightful approach to the function of brands in decision-making draws from the theory of information economics. Consumers are commonly met with imperfect and asymmetric information about products they intend to buy, and under these terms they have to make decisions. ‘Imperfect’ implies that the information is usually partial, and may also be inaccurate; ‘asymmetric’ information in particular means that the producers or suppliers know more about the products they sell (e.g., physical attributes, costs) than the consumers who buy from them.  The brand of a product can function in such settings as a signal of the credibility of the product’s origin. The signal could thus serve as a decision aid that helps consumers make a better or more gratifying choice. Theory and research of the past twenty years suggest that the brand as a signal may have impact not only on the outcome of the choice decision (e.g., its quality) but furthermore on the whole course of the decision process (e.g., consideration, evaluation, choice).

The perspective of information economics is relatively less familiar than other theoretical viewpoints. Reference is made here primarily to cognitive-driven theories of attitudes and information processing that receive greater coverage than information economics in the context of brands. Yet, the information economics viewpoint of the brand as a signal, led by Erdem, Swait and Louviere, can be employed beneficially side-by-side with Aaker’s model of brand assets or Keller’s concept of (differential) brand knowledge. These views offer complementing aspects with respect to the role and effects of brands in decision processes. The efficacy of the brand as a signal for credibility applies especially to strong brands. Moreover, each approach describes how consumer-based brand equity is built-up or materialised through decision processes, and also proposes how to model and measure it.

A more formal definition of the brand as a signal specifies the ability of a brand to act as a credible signal (e.g., trustworthy, believable) reflecting on positioning overall of the branded products. It implies that consumers’ perceptions of the branded product on multiple aspects, primarily perceived quality, would be stronger, more believable, or more reliable. Subsequently, we need to understand what can make the brand a more credible signal. Main drivers that contribute to brand credibility include consistency of the brand owner in delivering on its claims or promises (e.g., in advertising), which would make those claims more trustworthy; consistency in the performance of actions on marketing mix elements (e.g., pricing, product capabilities); clarity of messages (e.g., to support its positioning); and the scale of investment in the brand (e.g., offline and online advertising, website and mobile app, sponsorships).

Greater brand investment directly enhances brand credibility. But consistency in execution of marketing actions seems even more important by contributing directly, and strongly, to brand credibility as well as by supporting clarity, which is likely to further add to credibility of the brand. Consequent benefits of higher credibility to consumers are likely to be support for higher perceived quality, reduced perceived risk, and lower information costs (e.g., less search and validation of information). Perceiving less risk in buying the branded product can in addition free the consumer from looking for more information, and therefore reduce in turn the information costs even lower. [1, 2]

In a multi-attribute choice model, each product alternative is assigned values on a set of attributes according to a consumer’s perceptions or beliefs about those attributes. These perceptions may be ‘coloured’ by associations that the consumer holds with the product’s brand name (some associations would ascribe to physical or functional attributes of the product {or service} whereas others may relate to an intangible image of the brand). Utility weights are added for attributes, as applicable by the decision rule — these weights may differ between brands, for any attribute that may be judged, for example, as more compatible with, important for, or even unique to a specific brand. The brand hence may impact the choice decision from consideration of which brands to include in the choice set, through perceptions about the branded products, to utilisation of the information in the decision rule applied (e.g., by alternative or by attribute). (Note: Details about  random error components of perceptions and utilities are omitted here.)[2]

A wider-angle view will account for additional phases or processes surrounding the framework of choice model described above, for instance: (1) The search for information upon which perceptions are formed or updated and the costs that may be incurred in gathering the information; (2) Learning about products by using a form of hypothesis testing to evaluate and screen information; (3) Mental processes engaged during learning and decision-making (e.g., encoding, search and retrieval from memory, preference formation). When a brand helps to organise the information, it is employed as a basis or reference for testing a hypothesis, or affects the meaning given to attribute information, it exercises, and possibly enhances, its brand equity in the minds of consumers.[2]


  • Swait, Erdem, Louviere, and Dubelaar proposed a measure (metric) of consumer-based brand equity, constructed from the perspective of information economics which regards the brand as a signal for higher quality and reputation. They called their measure the “Equalization Price“. Deriving the EP estimate for a brand is based on a comparison between two settings: (1) A hypothetical market where there is no differentiation between brand alternatives, and total utility for all alternatives is the same (for simplicity, it can be set to 0 for all brands); (2) A simulated market (choice set scenario) where brand alternatives exhibit different total utilities. Their approach is rather different from many others in its reference to a ‘hypothetical alternative’ and to the total utility of an alternative instead of a brand-specific component.
  • The Equalization Price denotes the level to which the price for a brand-product alternative can be raised until its total utility for a consumer in the simulated market (choice scenario) becomes equal to the ‘common’ utility {0} (i.e., the price at which the utilities are equivalent). Weaker brands could be assigned a negative EP. The researchers applied their brand equity estimates to analyse the potential of brands to extend from the ‘mother’ category into a ‘new’ category (e.g., Levi’s extending from jeans to athletic shoes). (Technical note: The EP estimates are derived from a probabilistic multinomial choice model based on a choice experiment — the ‘total utility’ refers to the deterministic portion of utility). [3]

Let us look next in greater resolution at differences in the chain of effects of brand credibility between stages of the decision process. The contribution of brand credibility in reducing perceived risk is more crucial in the early stage of considering which brands are eligible at all to be chosen from. Brands associated with too much risk will be eliminated in this stage of constructing the consideration set, and they will be excluded from any further operations. The savings that can be gained in information costs will also be important at this stage. In other words, “perceived risk and information costs saved play a screening role in the choice process”. On the other hand, enhancing perceived quality, in virtue of greater brand credibility, has greater impact when evaluating alternatives prior to making the choice decision. Therefore, brand credibility can increase the probability of the branded product of both being considered for buying and of being eventually chosen, but there is a difference in how the outcomes are achieved between those decision stages. [1]

It has also been found that this distinction in impact of perceived risk and perceived quality between stages will be more pronounced in product categories characterised by greater uncertainty and higher sensitivity to uncertainty. At the brand level, inconsistency in executing marketing mix elements (e.g., pricing, distribution) is likely to increase consumer uncertainty regarding the brand claims, and thereof hurts the credibility of the brand (see the effect via clarity noted earlier). Erdem and Swait discuss managerial implications of the role of brand credibility for customer relationship management (e.g., cognitive and affective impacts of credibility) and brand extensions. They also review other research in which they substantiated the contributions of specific aspects of brand credibility over choice stages and product categories (e.g., overall and distinct effects of trustworthiness by consistently delivering on brand claims and expertise in execution of elements of the marketing mix, such as technological competence in product development and design).

The Internet opens before the consumers an ocean rich with information at their fingertips on personal computers and mobile devices, in a plethora of commercial and non-commercial websites and mobile applications. So it would seem that a great part of the problems confronted by the field of information economics have been resolved for consumers. Yet, searching and gathering relevant information for a purchase decision in many product categories still takes time and requires cognitive effort, and sometimes also psychic effort or emotional stress.

Different costs may be more significant these days than were in the pre-Internet age but they cannot be discarded. For example, with so many sources of information available and easily accessible, it takes more time to review just several of them, and it is increasingly necessary to cross-check information found on various websites or apps (e.g., direct competitors, online shopping platforms, trade and professional portals). In reality, consumers normally access and review only a small portion of information available in a domain (e.g., how many and how often consumers open a window to read technical specifications).

Furthermore, even if information is less imperfect, there are still issues concerning asymmetric information because a greater part of information on products and services is controlled and provided by interested commercial businesses. In addition, biases and diversions could be luring in online information sources that consumers may not suspect, because they are not directly associated with the companies and brands originally providing the product or service of interest (e.g., search engines, online shopping platforms, social media — younger consumers increasingly stay in the confinements of “closed gardens” of social network platforms and do not explore the Internet enough).

Addressing brand equity from the perspective of information economics highlights a crucial value a brand can offer, brand credibility, with a very practical function in purchase decision-making. There is somewhat an illusion in believing that consumers are far less challenged today by constraints and costs of obtaining and using information for making choice decisions. If only for that reason, brands are promised to continue to play a vital facilitating role in the decision process. Moreover, when consumers can rely on credibility of a brand as a signal, this continues to reinforce the brand equity.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Feel Well. Keep Good Health.

 

References:

[1] The Information-Economics Perspective on Brand Equity; Tülin Erdem and Joffre Swait, 2016; Foundations and Trends in Marketing, 10 (1), pp. 1-59 (DOI: 10.1561/1700000041)

[2] Brand Equity, Consumer Learning and Choice; Tülin Erdem, Joffre Swait, Susan Broniarczyk, Dipankar Chakravarti, Jean-Noël Kapferer, Michael Keane, John Roberts, Jan-Benedict E.M. Steenkamp, & Florian Zettelmeyer, 1999; Marketing Letters, 10 (3), pp. 301-318

[3] The Equalization Price: A Measure of Consumer-Perceived Brand Equity; Joffre Swait, Tülin Erdem, Jordan Louviere, & Chris Dubelaar, 1993; International Journal of Research in Marketing, 10, pp. 23-45

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shopping these days feels like making a journey in a different dimension in time, dominated by a strain of nasty Corona virus. It is greatly an unfamiliar, ambiguous dimension that forces consumers to divert from their habits and modify usual forms of shopping behaviour. Their considerations while shopping may change as well. Since the vast majority of shops and stores are closed, we are left to talk about shopping for food and other products for the household (e.g., in supermarkets, minimarkets and neighbourhood grocery shops). In other words, shopping is focused on necessities for maintaining some normalcy in daily living at home.

Time and distance become major factors in the planning and conduct of a shopping journey in a supermarket. Reducing the length of time spent in the store and keeping distance from other shoppers are imposed as constraints on the shopping trip; although they may not be formally enforced, they are very much recognised and felt by consumers. These factors hover above other choice considerations (e.g., format or version, ingredients, brand, and price), likely to cause shoppers to shift their priorities for some of their choices or to reconstruct their preferences on the fly.

Consider, for example, selecting fresh fruits and vegetables from trays in bulk. In normal times, the shopper may try to make an optimal selection, say of tomatoes — scan over the pile for tomatoes that look nice and red enough, pick a few for closer inspection of appearance and touch (but do not squeeze), return if the tomato has some defects on its surface and pick another, and so on until the needed number of good tomatoes is selected. This process is not easy to execute now. First, it is not desirable that two people will pick their tomatoes at the same time side by side, so one has to stand back and wait from a distance or choose another produce to select from. Second, the shopper may not afford to be too picky because each tomato one inspects takes more time and the shopper also may not want to touch too many of them. Hence shoppers would be more lenient and willing to trade-off time with the quality of the produce selected. Not everyone has the patience to carefully select fresh produce, and in these Corona days probably most shoppers have even less of it.

When choosing packaged products from shelves in the aisles, shoppers are likely to exhibit a stronger tendency to rely on habit and to buy the familiar brand one most frequently uses. These could be food products (e.g., pasta or rice, mustard, chocolate), cleaning substances or personal care products. To start with, most shoppers probably do not want to stay in a narrow corridor for too long, especially if another shopper or store employee is present in the aisle. Hence it is likely that the shopper will check first if the usual brand and format is available from a product category, and if so, pick it and quickly move on or out of the aisle. If the familiar or preferred product is not in sight (e.g., out of stock), the shopper may pick the nearest option that seems satisfactory and continue with the shopping journey. This seems less the time to explore new options or to search for the most desired brand, content or flavour of a product. Shoppers would be inclined even more than usual to apply a ‘satisficing’ choice strategy.

Similar behaviour will probably be found also at the department of refrigerated dairy products, though shoppers may take a little more care in selecting items because it is fresh produce. However, it is reasonable to believe that they will be more flexible in their choices with attributes of desire (e.g., flavour, add-ons) than need (e.g., sugar, fat). At service counters of delicatessen (e.g., cheese, salads), meat and fish, shoppers seem to be reluctant to join a line with three or more other shoppers standing before them, so they move on, and may return later or give up. Yet, since in recent weeks the entry of shoppers is monitored at the door (e.g., allowing for no more than ten shoppers to be in-store at any time), crowding of more than three people is quite unlikely near any display, counter, shelf or refrigerator. If crowding does occur, shoppers appear to quickly disperse by their own will and move to another display until the area nearly clears.

A supermarket can be a remarkably quiet place these days as everyone is pre-occupied with completing his or her shopping — allowing for brief amicable exchanges among the shoppers or with staff, no fuss, little arguments. Shoppers may come more prepared for their shopping trip, by relying for instance on a shopping list (for greater efficiency), but this is truly a matter of personal discretion. Ordinarily, research has shown that shoppers in large stores like supermarkets develop a stronger attraction to the cashiers as they progress in their shopping journeys, trying to make their journeys shorter.  But now shoppers can be expected to develop such an attraction sooner, perhaps from the moment they enter the store, even for consumers who largely enjoy to shop, search and select products for home.

The use of means for protection from contracting COVID-19 can make shopping further less convenient. At the entrance, a shopper may wear disposable gloves offered by the supermarket, after cleansing the hands of course with alcoholic gel (hand sanitizer). However, some nylon gloves seem to be sticky, and may also get torn after several hand gestures (e.g., it is not easy or comfortable to pick product items with the gloves). If one does not use them, the shopper better repeat cleansing the hands with alcoholic gel intermittently. Face masks, now mandatory in some countries, additionally make the shopping experience less pleasant (e.g., when talking with service staff, eyeglasses get covered with the steam of breath so it may be better to remove them). These protection means, some if not all, are necessary for protecting our own health and of those around us, but unfortunately they might disrupt and impede the shopping process.

  • Consumers who wish to avoid the hurdles of this shopping experience altogether can order their required products for delivery to  their homes. Albeit, there have been repeated complaints by consumers that deliveries  can take up to ten days.

Shopping in a minimarket store or a grocery shop has its own strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side, a shopper is likely to be exposed to fewer people, staff or peer shoppers, inside and outside the store during his or her visit than in a large supermarket store. On the negative side, however, a minimarket or grocery shop is usually more condensed, with narrower aisles than in a supermarket. Hence social distancing is a greater challenge in these smaller stores: one could be in closer vicinity to another person for a moment or two in-store, and maneuvering to clear the way is more difficult.

The puzzled consumer may have to think more deliberately about a shopping strategy, such as: (1) make short visits to buy a small number of most necessary items (e.g., about five) at the smaller store closer to home just to fill-in supplies at home, and avoid the larger store hubs; (2) make longer and less frequent visits to a large and more spacious supermarket store for renewing the stock of a larger variety of home supplies. Shortages in some products at stores (e.g., toilet paper, pasta, eggs, milk) may require shoppers, nevertheless, to visit more stores than desirable during a week to find the missing needed products. The strategy does not have to be innovative or so different from how consumers planned their shopping until this crisis. Yet the situation and restrictions imposed by government introduce significant constraints that force consumers to pay attention to details they did not consider material before and to calculate their steps for shopping more meticulously.

At this time (mid-April 2020) the vast majority of stores and shops for a variety of products and services are closed for business. For example, on a circular street of premium shopping in Tel-Aviv, with about a hundred active outlets of stores and shops (e.g., fashion, homeware, jewellery, bookshop, hairdressers, and a bank branch), about 15% were open to customers-shoppers in the afternoon in the fourth week of March, having a semi-lockdown imposed. At the end of that week an extensive lockdown went into force. Note that stores never closed on this street in mid-day until this time. This scale of closure was not experienced even during war conflicts of the past thirty years. In the last three weeks the greater part of outlets are completely locked while some 10%-15% maintain some level of presence on premises (e.g., receiving customers by phone appointment only). Some of those that are locked leave a note with a message that they are temporarily closed and others provide a phone number for enquiries and receiving orders.

When more stores and shops re-open, hopefully as soon as next month, consumers will probably remain cautious, still subject to some restrictive code of behaviour. Therefore, it is likely that consumers-shoppers will follow patterns of behaviour similar to some degree to those described above. It is too early to predict, however, the pace and extent at which consumers will return to be engaged in shopping. It may be a function of priorities set by consumers and their level of confidence, vis-à-vis how many and what types of commercial outlets the government gradually allows to re-open.

Rigorous research, based on observation and surveys, will be most welcome in order to achieve well-founded understanding of the effects of the Corona pandemic crisis on shopper behaviour. Data from directly interacting and observing consumers about their dispositions and behaviour can be supplemented by recorded data on their actual purchases (i.e., their shopping ‘baskets’). Such research will study and substantiate, for example, the changes in shopping tactics and patterns of behaviour effected by the pandemic and public policy (as suggested in the propositions above, based partly on casual observation and personal experience). The research may enquire specifically about the trade-off between taking measures to reduce risky exposure (i.e., avoid virus contagion) and the quality of choices made, or implications of ‘stock shopping’ (i.e., buying varied products in large quantities to create stocks at home).

Shopping in a food store, large and small, can be a tiring and stressful experience under the restrictions of the Corona pandemic and fear of contracting COVID-19. However, there is good reason to believe that consumers will return by and large to their older shopping practices once the crisis is over — consumers are able to adapt well to changing circumstances, and it should be furthermore easier to adjust to familiar conditions from the near past. Nevertheless, the re-adaptation will not be quick or complete as the process of recovery is expected to be gradual and we do not know when it will start and at what pace it will occur. Consumers will probably remain more alert than before, staying ready for more ‘surprises’ like resurgence of the pandemic; this will likely have impact on shopping of any kind, and moreover on receiving services one-to-one. Unfortunately, concerns that arise from economic consequences of this pandemic crisis may replace concerns about the virus itself and extend the recovery of shopping  behaviour and customs. Welcome to the Corona dimension.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Feel Well. Keep Good Health.

 

 

 

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The Theory of Jobs to Be Done has the power of shifting perspective in the areas of marketing and consumer behaviour, customer choice in particular: it advocates changing the focus of marketers from consumers as targets to what the consumers or customers wish to achieve by ‘hiring’ their companies’ products or services. The Jobs to Be Done Theory (or Theory of Jobs in short) is the central theme in the book “Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice” (2016) authored by Clayton M. Christensen (with three colleagues). Christensen, a professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, passed away in late January 2020 at the age of 67.  His book is one of the more illuminating, and nonetheless captivating, books I have read in the field in recent years; this post is written in tribute to Clayton Christensen and his valued contribution to knowledge and practice.

Christensen is probably known better to many engaged in management for his important, foundational work on disruptive innovation: how enterprises with original and ‘unorthodox’ approaches get to disrupt existing markets and unsettle incumbent companies or non-profit organizations. In many cases the new approach may alter the boundaries defining existing markets. Most often the innovation is technology-enabled, yet it is not all about technology but about a divergent and ingenuine way of thinking. The Theory of Jobs is actually aligned with his previous research: giving an innovative, better answer to a job consumers try to complete, where other solutions failed or disappointed, can cause disruption in a respective market.

Consumers have goals they wish to achieve or tasks they aim to accomplish — a ‘job’ is defined by a task or goal set by the consumer in a certain condition. More punctually, the ‘job’ is the progress consumers are making towards accomplishing their task, or getting the job done. It may often be constituted by a problem the consumer wants to solve. Christensen views consumer needs as something too vague and general, not describing closely enough the issue a customer faces and tries to resolve in a given situation. The job, however, is context-specific, described from the viewpoint of the consumer. The job can have functional, social and emotional aspects or drives that may change with circumstances (e.g., is George driving to work or spending time with his children in the mall? — in each case a milkshake can serve a different job, is Jane looking for something to eat in front of her TV or something to prepare for dinner for her family?)

The approach proposed by Christensen is not entirely new — it is inspired by a concept put forward by Theodore Levitt in the 1960s when criticising ‘marketing myopia’ — it is not the product that is of interest to consumers but what they need it for (e.g., solve a problem) or what they want to do with the product (e.g., people are looking for transportation, not necessarily for trains or cars, one does not buy the electric driller but the hole in a wall that can be made with it, for example to install holders for a shelf). In the same spirit, Christensen suggests that consumers do not buy products or services — they ‘hire’ a product or service to get a particular job done. Furthermore, the job does not dictate any specific type of product — a consumer may consider different types of solutions that lead each to hiring possibly a different type of product or service (e.g., taking a bus, riding a scooter, or walking {shoes}). However, Christensen seems to have evolved such ideas into a much more concrete plan for execution, one that goes beyond abstract needs and preferences to realistic tasks and goals, jobs encountered in specific circumstances in people’s everyday lives.

Customers remain central in the marketing strategies, plans and efforts of companies, but the emphasis of planning and analyses should not be put squarely on the customers and their characteristics (e.g., demographics, personality traits, lifestyles, needs, preferences). From the perspective of Jobs to Be Done, too much attention is given by managers to “who” the customer is, or even to “what” the customer did — the theory is focused  primarily on “why” the customer did something. Marketers have to understand much better the jobs that underlie the eventual choices made by customers. Because if  marketers understand why a certain choice was made, what job led to it in order to make progress, then they (and their associates) might be able to invent or develop an alternative solution (product or service) that customers would consider a better answer for that job the next time it arises. To obtain such understanding, Christensen and his colleagues advise that marketers should observe the behaviour of customers carefully and methodically (with aid of video), and listen to them. They propose five essential elements that should be captured in a struggle of a customer to make progress — what progress, circumstances, obstacles, compensating behaviour, and what makes a better “quality” solution.

A state of struggle is a crucial condition for a company to make impact on a customer’s choice– if a customer does not find himself struggling to get a job done, then one has no reason or motivation to replace his current solution, and is not likely to be open to alternative suggestions and offers. When a struggle does happen, a customer may ‘fire’ a product or service currently in use for the job in progress and ‘hire’ another as a solution to get the job done. Customers may be struggling to complete a job when a product they have so far employed turns out to be inadequate (e.g., terms of the job have changed, not necessarily due to the product’s fault) or its performance is disappointing. The theory seems to be concerned more with situations where the customer is not satisfied by the progress made with available solutions known to him or her and is voluntarily looking for alternative solutions. Additionally, customers may be struggling when they face a job for the first time. Whether a consumer is novice or experienced with a certain type of task or job, he or she may expand the range of product types and brands considered until identifying an apparently suitable solution for completing the job successfully (e.g., from the more usual and familiar options to the more novel and exceptional ones). Customers hire products or services, but may also fire others beforehand, and this can work in favour of a company or against it, thus creating threats as well as opportunities.

Christensen offers five ways where to find and uncover opportunities to create innovative solutions for Jobs to Be Done: (1) Finding a job close to home — gaps may arise in the more essential, daily and ordinary activities and tasks performed by consumers; (2) Competing with nothing — consider non-users who so far avoided tackling an issue or goal they have with available solutions because they believe those to be inappropriate or unsuitable for them — addressing ‘non-consumption’ can awake a new market segment; (3) Workarounds and compensating behaviours — when consumers cannot find a satisfying answer with available products or services offered as solutions they try to improvise and ‘invent’ their own solutions with existing means, often not intended for the made-up application — such cases should be identified to create a ‘tailored’ product-solution; (4) Look for what people don’t want to do — identify ‘negative jobs’ that are necessary but are seen as nuisance or burden (e.g., it comes at the worst time) to offer a relieving service that smoothens or reduces the burden of doing the job; (5) Unusual uses — a product that is consistently and constantly used for a purpose other than intended by the manufacturer may suggest a missing solution for an existing but unrecognised job that may now be fulfilled (this route seems close to the third route above). The five ways are briefly summarised here merely to demonstrate the scope of opportunities that Christensen (with his colleagues) opens up to practitioners to take initiative, not to rely on luck, and create innovative solutions that consumers may appreciate and adopt for their jobs.

The book “Competing Against Luck” is abundant with examples of jobs encountered by consumers and actual products and services developed and created to provide useful (working-functional) and fulfilling (social or emotional) solutions for them. The cases described help to illustrate jobs with different goals and in varying circumstances, and also to demonstrate research and enquiry methods for uncovering the jobs and devising solutions. The products and services cover a wide span of areas and domains for the interested readers to discover (e.g., distant online learning, shopping for matrasses, medical guidance and treatment, lodging, savings for children).

  • A Nugget for Thought: We could contemplate why men are shaving in different ways in the morning. Is M shaving every morning, every other day, or maybe just on weekends? M may be pressed in time for work and he just wants to keep a clean and decent look hassle-free (no time, no cuts, no mess); he can thus leave more time for other duties in the house before going out. His friend L may be keen about a particular look, an exact shape and cut of beard, that fits his self-image or the image he desires to have in the eyes of others (colleagues, friends etc.). We could also think about men who do not shave: N might grow a constant beard for religious reasons, but he may still wish to appear orderly and respectable, maybe even authoritative. The most suitable solution for the job of M may be an electric shaver whereas L may turn to a manual razor; N may be helped for his job by a set of scissors, a trimmer and a small brush. All three men would probably complete their jobs with some form of lotion or cream for their face (and beard). But are there any new devices, toolsets and services that can be made to help M, L, & N get their jobs done to even higher satisfaction and pleasure?

As an exception, I chose to conclude the post with a citation of Clayton Christensen from the chapter of Final Observations in the book “Competing Against Luck”  (p. 231):

I could go on for hours about how the Theory of Jobs helps us see the world in unique and insightful ways. Good theories are not meant to teach us what to think. Rather, they teach us how to think. I encourage you to continue the conversation from here in your home or your office after you put this book down.

I believe that this wish of late Clayton Christensen deserves to be adhered and fulfilled.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Reference: 

Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice; Clayton M. Christensen, with Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon and David S. Duncan, 2016; Harper Business (Harper Collins Publishers).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The checkout area with its cashier counters is normally the last stop of the shopper in a store, when carrying at least one product to buy. It is easy to neglect this location in the store by thinking that the shopper is arriving there just to pay, collect the items purchased (or hand over to delivery), and leave. But there is more that can happen in checkout beyond payment, specifically in making last minute purchases.

As the consumer spends longer time touring a (large) store on his or her shopping trip, the attraction of the checkout area to the shopper increases (in other words, the shopper more strongly desires to end the shopping trip). This phenomenon is particularly associated with shopping in food stores like supermarkets that sell also other grocery and household products. However, it could also prevail in stores for other types of products (e.g., DIY and home improvement, electrics and electronics, fashion), where the retailer displays many and varied items in a layout spread over a wide-area floor (hence any single large floor in a department store may also apply). The longer the shopping trip progresses, the shopper is likely to less engage in exploring sections in the store (supermarket) and to concentrate on buying products (i.e., the shopper will skip entire parts of the store in favour of entering those sections or aisles where he or she intends to choose products to buy). The tendency to gravitate towards checkout tends to grow in response to increased time pressure perceived by the shopper [*]. Such gravitation may be experienced, for instance, when the shopper enters an aisle from the back of the store and feels urged to exit on its other end closer to checkout rather than return to the back of the store and proceed with the shopping trip.

Yet, when the shopper arrives to a cashier counter, time may pause. Especially if one has to wait in line, this creates an opportunity to consider additional purchases.

Firstly, a shopper may choose from products placed next to the cashier counter. Stores often provide multiple options for last minute purchases at hand’s reach. These are  usually inexpensive items easy to pick-up. One may be reminded for instance that he is out of batteries or tissues and take a pack from the nearby stand. The retailer may also put products on special discount (e.g., ‘last-in-stock’ offers, chocolate gifts in advance of holidays) as shoppers access the cashiers for checkout. Then there are the ‘temptations’ shoppers could buy on impulse to spoil themselves (or their children) from a variety of small sweet or salty snacks (e.g., chocolate-coveted waffles, potato chips, chewing gums or candies of different flavours). By the time consumers get to checkout their self-control is more likely to be depleted and they are more prone to make yet another unplanned purchase.

But shoppers seem to make even more extensive considrations and decisions about products situated more far afield while standing in checkout. Waiting gives shoppers the chance to think again if they have forgotten anything, or maybe re-contemplate making an unplanned purchase they rejected earlier. It is not uncommon to see a shopper leaving the shopping cart in front of the counter and going to bring yet another product (if there is enough time one may go and return even twice). Shoppers may furthermore get ideas for unplanned purchases of products from end-of-aisle displays facing the checkout area — from her place in line the shopper may notice a visually appealing ‘invitation’ and make the short walk to pick-up the product and add to the cart or basket.

  • The ‘trips’ shoppers embark on from the checkout area can sometimes be quite long, deep into the aisles, and take a few minutes until they return with the sought out product. It is hard to anticipate what products shoppers may remember as late. Still, a retailer may identify products that are more essential to consumers, and are ‘fast moving’, so as to place them on shelves inside aisles and closer to the checkout area, quick and easy to access.

But the environment in supermarkets is changing, and shopping patterns that were allowed and even encouraged till now could be forced to diminish.

Supermarkets have been removing in the past few years some of their human cashier counters (in some cases about a half), replacing them with self-service cashier stations — each station includes a small counter and a computer-cashier terminal. The stations are positioned in a special checkout court usually in place where counters with human cashiers stood (thus 8 stations can be positioned, for example, instead of 4 human-staffed counters). The human cashier is now actually the customer. This method should decrease the probability of a customer having to stand in line or the number of customers waiting in line for a free self-service cashier station.

In practice the new method is not helpful and workable for every customer — especially older customers (e.g., 65+) and those less comfortable with computers are reluctant to try the self-service cashier counters. Some customers, particularly with full carts, still prefer to be serviced by a skilled human cashier. All these customers can still be found in lines, often longer ones, at the traditional checkout counters. This can frequently be evident at a time that most of the self-service stations are unused. But those stations do get employed, especially by younger customers (e.g., 30 something), and shoppers in a hurry or with just a few items taken out from a basket. Sometimes customers get mixed-up in the process, such as with scanning a product, weighing fruits or vegetables, or getting the product wrongly identified or unrecognised (errors that happen to staff cashiers as well), or having problems with payment. For those cases a permanent customer assistant must be present at all times to help customers resolve their issues and complete the purchase.

Yet, a conspicuous property of new self-service checkout areas could be noticed recently — the area or court is stripped from products anywhere around the stations. A shopper that enters the court may become isolated from the rest of the store. This has a positive aspect in eliminating any distractions from the checkout process done independently by the shopper and can help to hasten the process. There could also be a health benefit, that is by keeping the shopper away from sweets and snacks. However, it also cancels certain shopping habits that were natural, convenient and helpful to the shoppers (and also to retailers). It should not be that much of a nuisance to place a board with some useful and hedonic products next to the self-service stations. In reality, the opposite seems to happen, that is the number of products placed next to traditional cashier counters dwindles. Stands with products on discount deals may still be found in the traditional checkout area, but it may not be on the way, accessible or immediately visible to shoppers who turn to the self-service checkout area.

  • Note: Self-service cashier stations are still hard to find at this time in stores specialising in other product categories and in department stores.

The next stage is the cashier-less store with no discernible checkout area. Checkout is virtual, digital, and happens once the shopper goes out the gate or door. The early springs of this retail model already exist (e.g., Amazon Go convenience stores — “Just Walk Out”). Anything said above about shopping patterns at checkout supposedly would become irrelevant and non-valid. But the cashier-less model is still in its infancy and there are a number of issues to be resolved (e.g., in technology and application of the method) vis-à-vis human shopping behaviour tendencies.

At the moment Amazon Go stores, for instance, are characterised by quick shopping trips (e.g., “take away” prepared meals and other food items and drinks soon to be consumed), and perhaps trips to fill-in essential items missing at home. It is still unclear how the method would work for ‘heavier’ shopping missions. In particular, the methodology appears to apply to pre-packaged items taken off shelves (including in refrigerators), not to items in bulk to be weighed like fruits and vegetables. There seems to be no indication also where shoppers are supposed to move their purchased items into bags to take with them. Furthermore, at a traditional checkout counter you can ask the cashier for any clarifications about prices, discount validity or the final bill (on paper slip and now also on mobile phone). Even at the self-service station one can see on the screen the items and prices that roll as the checkout proceeds. With cashier-less stores, the shopper gets the bill on mobile app (e.g., Amazon Prime) only after leaving the store; then it is not simple to go back and find a representative to ask anything if needed.

These points suggest that a physical checkout area may not become obsolete; an area before exit with support services and counters to re-organise (e.g., before the gates) will remain needed. Perhaps cashier-less stores are simply not ready for performing more consequential shopping. When the model matures, then it should also be possible to place boards with easy-to-pick products that shoppers can grab just before going out through the gate.

The method for checkout is going through transformation, and even greater changes to this process are expected to take place in the future. However, the concept of a checkout area can remain in a new form that will answer to the needs and conveniences of shoppers. More careful thought should be given to modes of human behaviour, such as the benefit of having the time to pause and think over the shopping trip (e.g., accounting for limitations of human memory). The physical checkout area or court may always be the place for receiving human customer support, re-organising before leaving the store, and why not taking a small dark chocolate bar at the last minute on the way out.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

[*] Testing Behavioral Hypotheses Using an Integrated Model of Grocery Store Shopping Path and Purchase Behavior; Sam K. Hui, Eric T. Bradlaw, & Peter S. Fader, 2009; Journal of Consumer Research, 36 (October), pp. 478-493 (Herb Sornsen labeled this phenomenon the “checkout magnet” in his book Inside the Mind of the Shopper.)

Also see “Deconstructing the ‘First Moment of Truth’: Understanding Unplanned Consideration and Purchase Conversion Using In-Store Video Tracking” by Yui, Huang, Suher, & Inman, 2013 in the Journal of Marketing Research on planned and planned purchases.

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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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