Confucius was an influential Chinese philosopher who lived about two and a half thousand years ago. His teachings on subjects like respect, honesty, education and the importance of strong family bonds are as relevant today as they were in his day.
On one occasion, he was challenged as to whether there was ‘One word, which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?’ Confucius responded, ‘Reciprocity’.
His answer captures a fundamental human truth, which is not restricted to eastern philosophy. In the New Testament, Matthew reports Jesus giving similar advice during the Sermon on the Mount – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Whatever you believe, thousands of years of wisdom boils down to the fact that a bit of ‘give and take’ makes the world go round.
Reciprocity and Persuasion
At Dialogue, we ‘persuade people to buy’, and reciprocity is a key principle of persuasion. After all, people are more likely to do something if there is something in it for them too. You have to meet them halfway.
Quite how reciprocity manifests itself, very much depends on the relationship between the two parties.
You’ll happily do a favour for a friend, just for the intangible sense of being a good mate and knowledge that they’ll be there for you, should you ever need them. Whereas when the relationship is less personal, you’ll expect something back much sooner for your efforts. Just today I was asked to give a restaurant some feedback in exchange for a free coffee.
Sometimes, we don’t have time to agree what we are going to do in exchange for a product or service. That’s where money comes in handy. Everything has a price and shoppers can choose to pay it or not.
With cold hard cash having a consistent value (between merchants, if not over time) and many branded grocery products being stocked by multiple retailers, it ought to be easy for shoppers to identify where they get the best value. However, as we know, it’s rarely that simple. Prices fluctuate and aren’t available until you go in-store. Shoppers are rewarded for their patronage in other ways too, from loyalty cards to multi-buy offers. Add in the intangible value of convenience and the comparisons go from black and white to a shade of grey.
But sometimes, brands don’t just want your money. Like the place that offered me a coffee, they want you to do something else. With disposable income shrinking, it makes sense to offer shoppers another way to get access to the things they want.
It also plays on another basic human trait; valuing something more if you’ve had to work for it.
Sampling with a difference
One way brands can encourage consumers to try their products is to give them a free sample. The trouble is, when something is free, we often take it because there is no cost to us, even if we don’t particularly want it. If you put a barrier in place, however small, you can discourage those who don’t really want your product and ensure that those who do take it value it.
For example, last year Kellogg’s set up the ‘Tweet Shop‘. They wanted exposure for their new Special K Cracker Crisps. In exchange for a tweet, visitors to the store were given a free sample. They could have picked up a packet for under £1 at Boots, so the gift didn’t have a huge monetary value. But because it wasn’t simply shoved into their hands as they walked past a train station like so many samples, they valued it more.
There’s a great case study that highlights just how much what something costs frames how much we value it. A photo-editing app called GroupShot is normally priced at 99p. However, for twenty four hours, it was free to download. As you’d expect, download rates shot up. After all, the main barrier to owning the app had been removed. However, the developers noticed that over half of the people who downloaded the app for free failed to ever open it. They’d got a free sample and that’s where their relationship with the brand ended.
We don’t know whether the Tweet Shop achieved the level of exposure that Kellogg’s hoped, but those who did interact with it would have enjoyed their Cracker Crisps all the more for having to earn them.
Another brand to innovate in their demands on shoppers is Weetabix.
They recently partnered with Boots to run the first ‘Pay with a Picture‘ campaign. In order to get their hands on a free sample, shoppers had to photograph a TV advert and then use that photo as a voucher in-store. It sounds like a lot of effort and this review suggests the experience could have been friendlier to shoppers. However, in exchange for a free product, Weetabix made people engage with them and complete one shopper journey.
Away from the ‘breakfast brand extending itself into a light snack’ category, Amex have used their Card Sync technology to integrate sales into Twitter. To participate, cardholders have to tweet a special purchase hashtag, for example ‘#BuyXbox360Bundle‘. They then receive a confirmation tweet from Amex with a discounted price. The cardholder then has to retweet that message within 15 minutes of receiving it and the item is then sent to their billing address.
This not only ensures that cardholders follow Amex on Twitter, giving them a low cost media channel, but also that their cardholders act as ambassadors, broadcasting their savings to their followers.
Identify your goals and understand your audience
Remember the restaurant that offered me a free coffee in exchange for feedback? I don’t drink coffee, so they won’t be getting a response. However, let’s imagine that they had offered me a free cup of tea while I was in there, and asked me whether I would mind spending a couple of minutes answering their questions.
Social norms would have obliged me to do so because they had already given me something, and therefore I owed them.
In reality, one reason they didn’t adopt this approach is that the offer of a free coffee wasn’t a free gift at all.
It was also a trick meant to drive me back to their establishment and buy something else to go with the coffee. It’s not a bad tactic, but in this instance, having two goals means that neither is realised.
The challenge for brands is to find something to give back to their consumers that their consumers will value. They also need to identify what they want them to do in exchange, be it act as a brand ambassador, try a new product or simply feel more affection for them.
It’s important to understand what each party brings to the relationship. Ensuring it is fair can help strengthen the bond between them. Occasionally, one party is already unwittingly giving something away without getting anything back, which leads to a deterioration of the relationship and a lack of loyalty.
For example, every year I pay a hefty amount to London Midland and in exchange they help me get to and from work. However sometimes, trains are delayed, meaning my fellow passengers and I give up our precious time and get nothing in exchange.
Sometimes, this frustration results in the brand being badmouthed. Worse still, it can result in staff being abused. This, in turn, reduces their job satisfaction and motivation to represent the company positively, increases staff turnover and costs the company money in the long term.
But let’s imagine that those wasted minutes were converted into loyalty points that gave commuters something back – free upgrades, discounts with partner brands, etc. Then, the delays might be tolerated with better grace.
And as commuters’ time was no longer a free commodity, London Midland would come to value it more and consequently have a greater incentive to get trains to run on time.
Because as Confucius and Jesus identified all those years ago, when we appreciate each other and are fair in our actions, everyone wins.
It’s a common fallacy to think of a time before a change in status quo as somehow being magically problem-free. A Panglossian world where all was well and nothing needed to change, and wasn’t it a shame that it had to. Similarly, we cannot blithely consign the retail industry of the past to some glorious era when everything was perfect; far from it. The industry has been under continual evolution, with no absence of controversy on the way. It was therefore a timely reminder, as well as being a fascinating article in its own right, when the New York Times provided readers recently with a potted history and a gaze into the future of Manhattan department store stalwart, Barneys. Not only is their past one in which the original proprietor sought to undercut his own suit suppliers, creating a bootlegging economy by literally ripping out their labels and replacing them with his own, but it was also one where department stores served a very different purpose to what they do today. They had less direct competition, not least unforeseen competition in the form of shops without a physical presence. Moreover, today they are run in an extremely different way, with an arguably much healthier emphasis on revenue (though some might say this comes at the expense of a feeling of luxury, in a lobby now brimming with handbags and little breathing room). The problems and opportunities for Barneys could serve as an analogy for the industry of which it is a part.
Despite brief reprieves such as Black Friday (click on headline image for CNBC’s coverage), as well as the expected post-Christmas shopping frenzy, can one of the main problems affecting retail at the moment simply be that it is undergoing an industry-wide bout of creative destruction? Zeitgeist has written about the nature of creative destruction before, and whether or not that is to blame for retail’s woes, the sector is certainly in the doldrums. In the UK, retailers are expecting a “challenging” year ahead. Recent research from Deloitte shows 194 retailers fell into administration in 2012, compared with 183 in 2011 and 165 in 2010. So, unlike the general economy, which broadly can be said to be enjoying a sclerotic recovery of sorts, the state of retail is one of continuing decline. How did this happen, and what steps can be taken to address this?
Zeitgeist would argue that bricks and mortar stores are suffering in essence due to a greater amount of competition. By which, we do not just mean more retailers, on different platforms. Whether it be from other activities (e.g. gaming, whether MMOs like World of Warcraft or simpler social gaming like Angry Birds), or other avenues of shopping (i.e. e-commerce, which Morgan Stanley recently predicted would be a $1 trillion dollar market by 2016), there is less time to shop and more ways to do it. The idea of going to shop in a mall now – once a staple of American past-time – is a much rarer thing today. It would be naive to ignore global pressures from other suppliers and brands around the world as putting a competitive strain on domestic retailers too. Critically, and mostly due to social media, there are now so many more ways and places to reach a consumer that it is difficult for the actual sell to reach the consumer’s ears. This is in part because companies have had to extend their brand activity to such peripheries that the lifestyle angle (e.g. Nike Plus) supercedes the call-to-action, i.e. the ‘BUY ME’. The above video from McKinsey nicely illustrates all the ways that CMOs have to think about winning consumers over, which now extend far beyond the store.
If we look at the in-store experience for a moment without considering externalities, there is certainly opportunity that exists for the innovative retailer. Near the end of last year, the Financial Times published a very interesting case study on polo supplier La Martina. The company’s origins are in making quality polo equipment, from mallets to helmets and everything in between, for professional players. As they expanded – a couple of years ago becoming the principle sponsor of that melange of chic and chav, the Cartier tournament at Guards Polo Club – there came a point where the company had to decide whether it was going to be a mass-fashion brand, or remain something more select and exclusive. As the article in the FT quite rightly points out, “Moving further towards the fashion mainstream risked diluting the brand and exposing it to volatile consumer tastes.” The decision was made to seek what was known as ‘quality volume’. The company has ensured the number of distributors remains low. Zeitgeist would venture to say this doesn’t stop the clothing design itself straying from its somewhat more refined roots, with large logos and status-seeking colours and insignia. Financially though, sales are “growing more than 20% a year in Europe and Latin America”, which is perhaps what counts most currently.
In the higher world of luxury retail, Louis Vuitton is often at the forefront (not least because of its sustained and engaging digital work). While we’re focusing purely on retail environments though, it was interesting to note that the company recently set up shop (literally) on the left bank of Paris; a pop-up literary salon, to be precise. Such strokes of inspiration and innovation are not uncommon at Vuitton. They help show the brand in a new light, and, crucially, help leverage its provenance and differentiate it from its competition. Sadly, when Zeitgeist went to visit, there was a distinct feeling of disappointment that much more could have been done with the space, which, while nicely curated (see above), did little to sell the brand, particularly as literally nothing was for sale. The stand-out piece, an illustrated edition of Kerouac’s On the Road, by Ed Ruscha, Zeitgeist had seen around two years ago when it was on show at the Gagosian in London. Not every new idea works, but it is important that Louis Vuitton is always there at the forefront, trying and mostly succeeding.
So what ways are there that retailers should be innovating, perhaps beyond the store? One of the more infuriating things Zeitgeist hears constructed as a polemic is that of retail versus the smartphone. This is a very literal allusion, which NBC news were guilty of toward the end of last year. “Retail execs say they’re winning the battle versus smartphones”, the headline blared. What a more nuanced analysis of the situation would realise is that it is less a case of one versus the other, than one helping the other. The store and the phone are both trying to achieve the same things, namely, help the consumer and drive revenue for the company. Any retail strategy should avoid at all costs seeing these two as warring platforms, if only because it is mobile inevitably that will win. With much more sound thinking, eConsultancy recently published an article on the merits of providing in-store WiFi. At first this seems a risky proposition, especially if we are to follow NBC’s knee-jerk way of thinking, i.e. that mobile poses a distinct threat to a retailer’s revenue. The act of browsing in-store, then purchasing a product on a phone is known as showrooming, and, no doubt aided by the catchy name, its supposed threat has quickly made many a store manager nervous. However, as the eConsultancy article readily concedes, this trend is unavoidable, and it can either be ignored or embraced. Deloitte estimated in November that smartphones and tablets will yield almost $1bn in M-commerce revenues over the Christmas period in the UK, and influence in-store sales with a considerably larger value. That same month in the US, Bain & Co. estimated that “digital will influence more than 50% of all holiday retail sales, or about $400 billion”. Those retailers who are going to succeed are the ones who will embrace mobile, digital and their opportunities. eConsultancy offer,
“For example, they could prompt customers to visit web pages with reviews of the products they are considering in store. This could be a powerful driver of sales… WiFi in store also provides a way to capture customer details and target them with offers. In fact, many customers would be willing to receive some offers in return for the convenience of accessing a decent wi-fi network. Tesco recently introduced this in its larger stores… 74% of respondents would be happy for a retailer to send a text or email with promotions while they’re using in-store WiFi.”
These kind of features all speak more broadly to improving and simplifying the in-store experience. They also illustrate a trend in the blending between the virtual and physical retail spaces. Major retailers, not just in luxury, are leading the way in this. Walmart hopes to generate $9bn in digital sales by the end of its next fiscal year. CEO Mike Duke told Fast Company, “The way our customers shop in an increasingly interconnected world is changing”. This interconnectedness is not new, but it is accelerating, and the mainstream arrival of 4G will only help spur it on further. The company is soon to launch a food subscription service, pairing registrants with gourmet, organic, ethnic foods, spear-headed by @WalmartLabs, which is also launching a Facebook gifting service. At the same time, it must be said the company is hedging its bets, continuing with the questionable strategy of building more ‘Supercenters’, the first of which, at the time a revolutionary concept, they opened in 1988.
One interesting development has been the arrival of stores previously restricted to being online into the high street, something which Zeitgeist noted last year. This trend has continued, with eBay recently opening a pop-up store in London’s Covent Garden. These examples are little more than gimmicks though, serving only to remind consumers of the brands’ online presence. Amazon are considering a much bolder move, that of creating permanent physical retail locations, if, as CEO Jeff Bezos says, they can come up with a “truly differentiated idea”. That idea and plan would be anathema to those at Walmart, Target et al., who see Amazon as enough of a competitor as it is, especially with their recent purchase of diapers.com and zappos.com. It serves to illustrate why Walmart’s digital strategies are being taken so seriously internally and invested in so heavily. Amazon though has its own reasons for concern. Earlier in the article we referenced the influence of global pressures on retailers. Amazon is by no means immune to this. Chinese online retailer Tmall will overtake Amazon in sales to become the world’s largest internet retailer by 2016, when Tmall’s sales are projected to hit $100 billion that year, compared to $94 billion for Amazon. The linked article illustrates a divide in the purpose of retail platforms. While Amazon is easy-to-use, engaging and aesthetically pleasing, a Chinese alternative like Taobao is much more bare-bones. As the person interviewed for the article says, “It’s more about pricing – it’s much cheaper. It’s not about how great the experience is. Amazon has a much better experience I guess – but the prices are better on Taobao.”
So how can we make for a more flexible shopping experience? One which perhaps recognises the need in some users to be demanding a sumptuous retail experience, and in others the need for a quick, frugal bargain? Some permutations are beginning to be analysed, and offered. Some of these permutations are being met with caution by media and shoppers. This month, the Wall Street Journal reported that retailer Staples has developed a complex pricing strategy online. Specifically, the WSJ found, it raises prices more than 86% of the time when it finds the online shopper has a physical Staples store nearby. Similar such permutations in other areas are now eminently possible, thanks in no small part to the rise of so-called Big Data. Though the Staples price fluctuations were treated with controversy at the WSJ, they do point to a more realistic supply-and-demand infrastructure, which could really fall under the umbrella of consumer ‘fairness’, that mythical goal for which retailers strive. Furthemore, being able to access CRM data and attune communications programmes to people in specific geographical areas might enable better and more efficient targeting. Digital also allows for a far more immersive experience on the consumer side. ASOS illustrate this particularly well with their click-to-buy videos.
As the Boston Consulting Group point out in a recent report, with the understated title ‘Digital’s Disruption of Consumer Goods and Retail’, “the first few waves of the digital revolution have upended the retail industry. The coming changes promise even more turmoil”. This turmoil also presents problems and opportunities for the marketing of retail services, which must be subject to just as much change. If we look at the print industry, also comparatively shaken by digital disruption, it is interesting to note the way in which the very nature of it has had to change, as well as the way its benefits are communicated. It is essential that retailers not see the havoc being waged on their businesses as an opportunity to ‘stick to what they do best’ and bury their head in the sand. This is the time for them to drive innovation, yes at the risk of an unambitious quarterly statement, and embrace digital and specifically M-commerce. What makes this easy for those companies that have so far resisted the call is that there is ample evidence of retailers big and small, value-oriented to luxury-minded, who have already embraced these new ideas and platforms. Their successes and failures serve as great templates for future executions. And who knows, the state of retail might not be such a bad one to live in after all. Until the next revolution…