They used to say: “the consumer is king”, however this is not always the case. For example, our ability to negotiate with retailers on the grounds of price has gone, with so many national chains “templating” pricing structures and allowing their staff very little discretion. Gone is the opportunity to barter, to achieve and win one’s own bargain, and by doing so satisfy something deep within the consumer’s mind. This is a mindset that dates back to the earliest days of civilisation, when man first discovered that mutually-beneficial trade is more rewarding than conflict.
The truth is, consumers are often faced with product, service and pricing bewilderment when they confront the wide array of options available to satisfy their needs. This isn’t strictly a bad thing. We certainly don’t want to go back to the Henry Ford adage of “you can have any colour of as long as it’s black”.
Another very real problem facing modern consumers is that they genuinely have a difficulty in deciding between what is on offer. This has given rise to the price comparison industry where computers do the hard work to level the playing field for the consumer. Ultimately both consumer and producer pay for that service one way or another.
Then there’s Schwartz’ “paradox of choice”. Presented with high levels of choice, our purchasing behaviour tends to be depressed, not elevated. We’ve all gone to a restaurant and been confronted with a bewildering array of dishes, only to make a rushed choice as the waiter attends the table and presses for an order.
Consumer choice is about enabling customers to discriminate when choosing. The “USP” is often less important than like-for-like comparisons. It is through this process that consumers apply their own values, principles and decision-making processes, which they continually developed throughout their lives. It is this “customer centeredness” that many organisations fail to understand.
We now live in a fast-paced, information-focused, discriminating consumer society, where we have gone beyond goods and services as simple social functions necessary for survival. Instead they reflect personal power and self-expression, where consumers make active choices that are as unique to them as they may appear idiosyncratic to companies. Consumers need information in the right way, in the right measure, and in a way that is comparable to that from competing products.
Consumer choice is not defined by the choices that are on offer, but by the sheer buying power of customers, so we need to be very careful that what we provide is the best. Ultimately, the modern consumer needs balance of information, respect for their integrity, a basis for comparison, and opportunities in the transaction to negotiate and satisfy those primal instincts that we all have.
Good companies have this as part of their DNA, whilst others muse about it, but rarely put it into practice. However you cut it, avoiding consumers will eventually catch up with the companies that see consumers as “closures” rather than people.
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