From Conspicuous to Conscious Consumption

An interview with Dan Stanek, Executive Vice President, TNS Retail Forward

It wouldn’t surprise you if I said that this holiday shopping season is expected to be weak. But would you be taken aback if I said that there is a fundamental shift in consumer values underway that may have a lasting impact on retailers? If your eyebrows are raised, listen up.

What changes are you observing in consumer values?

What I am seeing is the pendulum swinging away from the conspicuous consumption of the 1980’s and 1990’s and toward conscious consumption. And this is having a profound impact on the retail industry. Overall, the current economic situation is accelerating trends toward frugality and placing importance on relationships and people instead of things. The importance on things to make someone happy is being questioned. I am seeing almost an anti-consumerism sentiment.

The immediate change for retailers is that people are shifting from premium brands to down-market channels. Wal-mart (WMT) is a big beneficiary of this trend with its lower prices and higher value. There is also a move into dollar stores and thrift shops as well as Freecycle or Craigslist and other places where people can barter and exchange goods versus just throwing away unwanted items.

In the long run, some of these new spending patterns will stick with consumers who may not return to spending more when the economy rebounds or who will stay with lower-end brands in some categories.

Is there another time in history where there has been a big shift in consumer values? How did it impact retailers then?

During the Great Depression there was a profound amount of frugality. People made the best use of what they had. This value system stuck with that generation for their lifetime. They purchased high-quality goods that would last a long time. They didn’t want to be wasteful.

There were also profound shifts in the opposite direction, during the 1980’s and 1990’s. During the tech bubble when people started to feel rich they wanted to display that affluence with a Rolex or perhaps a BMW or large home. During this period of high consumption the retail industry experienced tremendous growth and also consolidation as the rise of behemoths like Wal-Mart occurred.

Is there a brand or campaign that you think is getting in right in addressing the current shift in values?

Dentyne is taking a very basic product, a discretionary product, and instead of positioning it around taste or fun they are relating it to specific relationships and social issues. Their campaign (supported by TV spots, billboards and the internet) is all about people and your relationships with them – “Make face time.” Obviously the connection they want consumers to make is that if you are going to be with people you need fresh breath. So, Dentyne encourages people to get off the internet and re-connect with friends by providing visitors with 3 minutes to explore dentyne.com. It’s an original concept.

What advice do you have for retailers who are (re)developing their marketing strategies?

The most important thing for retailers is to tie value and values together. When you can make a statement to offer lower price or great value and also that you are doing things “right” (such as making a donation with each purchase or using environmentally friendly materials), it will help justify the purchase for shoppers. You need to provide a reason for consumers to prioritize your purchase in their life above other things they need to spend money on.

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One Response to From Conspicuous to Conscious Consumption

  1. Sid Raisch says:

    Wiser words about value could not be written or spoken Charlie. This has all been coming down the pike toward us for a good while. There are many good resources to help us take advantage of what could be a bad situation with innovation, especially in changing the way we present the benefits of what we sell and who we are together. I really enjoyed the thoughts on face time. As much as we increase “real-time” communication with all the ways the Internet is providing it is still face-time that seals the deals. I drove 6 hours round trip to hear you speak for one hour, and of course for the pleasure of meeting you. Your words are fresh-aire for the years to come.

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