Thursday, July 27, 2006

Information overload, but it cuts both ways

From the moment the Shopper steps foot inside a supermarket he or she is subjected to a barrage of information.

The challenge this constitutes compounds and compounds as the Shopper is drawn past the newspapers and magazines into the greengrocery department. Beyond lie the dairy and other chilled goods on one side and the deli on the other. At the far end is our in-house bakery. Having made it this far the Shopper is confronted with our butchery and seafood offerings.

By this time the Shopper (who may or may not have arrived with a plan - see here for an exploration of The Shopping List) has probably given up what from the start was a very unequal struggle and surrendered to us.

Things only get worse from this point. Which ever way the shopper turns there is no escape. Head south and face a wall of herbs and spices that segues into jams and pastes or strike out in a westerly direction past the bagged bread in the direction of a long tunnel of biscuits and snacks.

Which ever way the Shopper turns he (for the sake of simplicity) will turn left or right at some point and run the gauntlet or one or more of our 'aisles'.

First aisle is (currently) laid out with the pastas and sauces, followed by the 'ethnic' food(yes, that's what its called, though only for internal consumption: it's the rices, noodles and asian sauces, plus the mexican range) and then whole foods (that's the tofu and other inedible stuff). On the other side are the tinned crap (mostly baked beans), tinned veg, tinned meals (actually more tinned crap) and then the tinned fruit.

On and on it goes, through household, baby stuff, petfood, beverages, soft drinks, booze, health and beauty and frozen goods. Beyond the main aisles lie the remaining concessions - pharmacy, electrical and travel.

Everywhere the shopper turns he's being manipulated; everywhere he turns he's being bombarded. Every item we stock (excluding some loose greengrocery and some loose bakery) is packaged, and the packaging carries information.

The packaging will bear some combination of branding, variety, description, size (weight, volume, length), barcode, price, special offer specifics, manufacture's name, supplier's name, customer care details, warnings, contents, instructions for use/cooking, manufacturing codes such as production date and batch number and Use By date.

Sometimes in addition to all the above the packaging carries competition details, or marketing hooks: New Formula! New Scent! New, Improved! New, Bigger! Now 'whatever' than ever!

The shelves carry 'shelf labels', the price tags which carry a whole lot of information, some proportion of which is utterly of no interest whatsoever to the Shopper. The information on one of our SLs will include:
  • some abbreviation of the product name
  • the size
  • the price
  • the warehouse source (of no interest to the customer)
  • price per unit or weight (supposedly to facilitate understanding of the price and also make comparison possible)
  • barcode (of no interest to the customer)
  • warehouse code (of no interest to the customer)
  • manufacture code (of no interest to the customer)

Unfortunately the information provided by the manufacturers (and us) doesn't end with those shelf labels (always assuming we've actually got them present and correct). Also taking up space along the shelves are the 'offer notices'. These are much larger than the shelf labels and also a contrasting colour. They carry information about BOGOFs (that's buy one, get one free) or TWOFERS (two for - or three, four etc, some price). We also, sometimes, do those old-fashioned WASNOW (clearance price type offers) deals.

The aisles are usually something of an obstacle course. In addition to the mid-aisle displays (including the one topped out with a TV that promotes a range of shoddy domestic cleaning gadgets) you'll often find abandoned warehouse cages, packaging litter and abandoned shopping, as well as geriatric customers, middle-aged conflabs and an assortment of children.

Beyond this the store is festooned with more or less pointless 'stuff' such as bobbing flowers to celebrate the warm weather but really to add more noise to the cacophony. What limited wall space is available will be plastered with posters promoting a cross-section of the current deals and special offers.

Within the arrangement of the departments the goods are arrayed with multiple sometimes conflicting objectives.

On the one hand the supermarket has an obligation to its owners to maximise the return available from inducements to position products in the position of choice of the supplier/manufacturer.

On the other hand the supermarket has an outright objective of selling through as much as possible in the shortest possible time. So product must be placed within sight of its target audience. Which is why granny's mints are at her eye-level but her grand kids lollypops are at their eye-level. Simple and blindingly obvious. Where there's a conflict the product that takes precedence (inducements being equal) will be the product with the most demanding target. That means toddlers.

Don't expect products to be clustered. The chopped tomatoes will be on one shelf, while the chopped tomatoes with garlic will be on another shelf and foot or so to the left and the chopped tomatoes with garlic and herbs will be on yet another shelf and someway off to the right. Why? Because it forces the shopper in search of that particular product to scan the shelves in way and to an extent that he or she might not. In this way we hope to contribute to maximising impulse buying.

Impulse buying is one way in which customers are beguiled into spending more than they'd intended (or even perhaps can reasonably afford); buy buying things they absolutely don't need.

No-one impulse buys milk.

Another way customers are beguiled into spending more than absolutely needed is through the pricing structure, tortuous 'deal' terms and conditions and sloppy labelling. Bigger isn't always cheaper. Study the price per (100g/kilo/cl, whatever); take a calculator if necessary. Often the largest packaging of a product will have its price per described one way while the other smaller sizes will be described in other ways, making it difficult if not impossible for the shopper to be canny.

For the second time this year we're offering a range of our bottled ales and beers on a 3 for £4 deal. Individually the beers are £1.85 per bottle. About eight beers are included in the offer and the shopper can purchase any three beers to qualify. The bottles are all on the top shelf in a block. Except that there's a cuckoo in the nest: in their midst we've placed another popular bottled beer which we sell at the slightly higher price of £1.89. Now of course the customer's got an obligation to pick his way through the promotion fine print, which isn't so small anyway.

But the number of customer's who've come to the tills with one of these cuckoo bottles strongly suggests that they're making what they see as a perfectly reasonable assumption that the whole row of bottled drinks is included in the offer. And all to often when confronted with the evidence of their mistake - the fine print, the shopper chooses to add to his shopping with enough bottles from the range in the offer to qualify the offer but without returning the bottles of the non-qualifying product. They just take the added hit.

I also wonder quite how exercised we as a business are about complying with the Sale of Goods Act. We're selling a range of flash priced ice-creams, we've been selling them for weeks, one of the most popular varieties for some reason doesn't trigger the offer at the tills, so the customer ends up paying for each at the individual price rather than in accordance with the flashed Two for £x price.

Of course when a customer picks up the mistake we're all grovellingly apologetic and refund the overcharge. But someone somewhere quite possibly is making the calculated decision that anything less than 100% return for refund is a win for us. You can be certain that someone sits in an office quite a long way from the nearest customer.

On average every three weeks our offers change over and the first few days afterwards are total chaos. The offers don't scan properly, the check-out staff and their supervisors get totally stressed and a flurry of emails ensues as we work to get the offer coding right. Inevitably after the first few days things settle down as the necessary programming of the tills is fed in finally and everything scans.

And that is precisely what makes me so cynical about the ice-creams. If we can get each offer period's new deals working within a couple of days (and of course they should all work from the off, but that's a different subject) then why has the ice cream still not been sorted out after weeks and weeks?

On a completely different level we simply fail to keep everything we're selling properly and accurately price-tagged. So people buy what takes their fancy without any regard for the price they're going to be charged.

This can have unfortunate consequences and sometimes unpleasant ones. Yesterday I was confronted by a seriously pissed-off gentleman who'd picked up a couple of bottles of a wine from one of the display bins down in the dairy section. He found me on the shop floor and complained that he'd been overcharged because the wines were being promoted as a 2 for £x offer and he'd been charged full price. I went round with him to look at the promotion. Often the shopper has not read the fine print (see above) and can be brought to accept that they've made a mistake.

Unfortunately what I found more than justified the shopper's state of fury. First of all the two adjacent bins held two very different wines and neither bin had any pricing information whatsoever. Secondly, draped across the bin from which the shopper had drawn his two bottles was a sign that did indeed promote a wine on a 2 for £x offer. But the promoted wine was the wine in the adjacent bin. Someone from among our staff had clearly got bored before completing the stack. Instead of setting up the promotion poster in a stand he or she had left it lying about, where isn't clear, and at some time it had become associated with the wrong wine.

Now the poster did specify, down in the lower right corner, which of our wines qualified for the deal, but handwritten rather than printed. The irate shopper's point which was that it was difficult to know what to believe when we were so sloppy in the way we laid out our product and failed to apply price labels and display promotion details was entirely valid.

By the time he'd finished I felt thoroughly wrung out and half-expected a visit from trading standards.

I sorted the promotion posted and price labels out and got back to my job. I didn't bother telling the GM what had happened because he doesn't care. If the customer has made a mistake, and the sign did specify the wine (or in other words we're skirting on the right side of the law in respect of the promotion), then all the rest (including the customer relations) isn't his problem.

And you can bet if Trading Standards had turned up to rap him over the knuckles he'd have clobbered someone else in turn.


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