Pampered, picky and powerful – is the new consumer beyond the reach of retail?

“The consumer is the product of a conspiracy hatched by corporate executives in the bowels of the Ministry of Truth, then imposed with diabolical cleverness on a passive population.” The helplessness implied this description has certainly changed over time.

From the early 1900s the trend in USA advertising started to reflect a change in consumer mentality and power. Jackson Lears suggests that there was “a shift from a Protestant ethos of salvation through self-denial toward a therapeutic ethos stressing self-realization in this world — an ethos characterized by an almost obsessive concern with psychic and physical health defined in sweeping terms.”

The shift from self-denial to self-realisation has reached a new peak. Today the consumer is king. Although they may be stressed and over-worked, the consumer is pampered, cajoled and “encouraged” rather than pressured. Once the marketing effort shifted from a production focus to a consumption-oriented society the importance of the consumer shifted upwards and that elevation would continue to this day.

Not only are consumers powerful and pampered, they are bored. There is too much choice, they have too much money, and they want more for less – all the time, right now. The psychological needs of the consumer is more powerful an urge than their physical needs. They have more than enough food – they want to be persuaded by clever packaging, by convincing stories and transparent labelling. They demand more information about their food and its origin, they insist on the primacy of their health and well-being, and they refuse to pay more for any of it.

If you are a consumer (and you are) then this is great news. If you are a producer or a retailer you could be worried. Your customer has more choice than ever before. In the UK around 25% of all retail transactions now occur online. Price transparency is now a global phenomenon – and shipping is usually free! Not only do ingredients need to be itemised their origin needs to be stated and proved. There are eagle eyes on pack sizes, on the amount of packaging, on the recyclability of packaging, plus the option of bringing your own packaging. For an industry whose metrics are traditionally based on bulk sales, uniformity and speed of through-put all of these demands pose real problems. In the New Zealand context, there is the additional threat of global retailers licking their lips in anticipation of sweeping up the local market.

A whisper in your ear

The glass certainly looks half empty. Unless… one can understand and meet the needs of the all-powerful consumer. They are stressed and need the ability to give themselves mini-indulgences. They need to go to places where they can feel pampered. Every action needs to give them a sense of self-justification and to improve their self-worth. Savvy retailers and manufacturers believe they can satisfy these needs as well as any psychologist.

You stop by the shopping centre on the way home – just to pick up a salad for dinner. Why not buy just a little bar of chocolate after a tough day at the office? After all, it is dark chocolate ethically sourced from the jungles of South America where a percentage of the profits are re-invested? In fact, on the recyclable paper packaging is a picture of the farmer on whose land the cacao was harvested – he has a name and a story and a very grateful smile. Not only are you buying a well-deserved treat, you are doing good at the same time. Why not wash it all down with a glass of milk? Real milk, full-fat milk, natural, healthy milk from a farm in the Waikato, not even two days old. You might have driven past the farm, you might have spotted the actual cow! You want to make sure your money benefits the local economy too, not just the South American cacao farmer. And look! There’s a bar of soap for that long, hot bath tonight. To soothe those over-worked limbs we have a soap-free, naturally-fragranced compound in the shape of a cloud. It contains no nasties, has moisturising coconut oil and a slightly abrasive texture because of small quantities of very fine river sand from the Rhine, carefully washed and gently blended with the soap.

By the end of the shopping trip your imagination has travelled the globe, your generosity has benefited farmers in two countries and your environmental footprint is microscopic. The chocolate will evaporate from your hips within a few seconds of stepping into the gym and you will feel on top of the world – you’ll feel like the all-powerful consumer you are. Doing good while pampering yourself. Now who’s to say that retail is dead?

Listen to Prof Jonathan Elms discussing a range of trends in this webinar entitled “Key trends in Food Retailing and Marketing”.

Jonathan is the Sir Stephen Tindall Chair Professor in Retail Management at Massey Business School and leads the Bachelor of Retail and Business Management (BRBM), New Zealand’s only retail degree.

Jonathan is the Founding Director of the Centre for Advanced Retail Studies (CARS), New Zealand’s centre of excellence for retail research, education and scholarship. Jonathan has also conducted research and is a regular keynote speaker at national and international conferences on retail change, strategy, and innovation.

Reference: Lears, T.J. Jackson 1983. From salvation to self-realization: Advertising and the therapeutic roots of the consumer culture, 1880–1930. In The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880–1980, ed. by Richard Wightman Fox and T.J. Jackson Lears, New York: Pantheon Books, 1–38.