Sunday, September 23, 2012

Fighting the “Knowledge Battle” at Safeway

I am old enough to remember when unit pricing was introduced in major supermarket chains. I was never quite sure what the real logic was behind the move. I suppose there was a general consensus that consumers were caring more and more about what things actually cost. Thus, the first adopter may have gambled that more customers would come if they were given more useful information. Another conjecture is that people tend to buy more when they are given more information: When they figure out where the savings are, they often leverage the saving by purchasing more of the item with the best price.

Whatever the case, the first adopter did not remain alone very long. Now everyone seems to be in the same boat, at least in most supermarkets and drug stores. Meanwhile, over at Safeway a new challenge seems to be arising over whether or not one knows the price at all, regardless of whether or not it is also normalized by unit price, leading me to wonder whether or not there is a new swing towards making the customer more ignorant.

There was actually a threatening predecessor. I discovered that, for some items that had a wide variety of sizes, there would be different items whose unit prices were based on different units. For example a package of frozen fruit would have a unit price in ounces. However, a “large economy size” package of exactly the same fruit would have a unit price in pounds. Thus, the price-curious shopper would have to do some form of ounce-to-pound conversion to level the playing field. These days there’s an app for that (as they like to say); but it is unclear how many shoppers know that the problem can be resolved by calculation, whether or not an app simplifies that calculation.

Still, muddled information is better than no information at all. The trend at my Safeway these days seems to be for entire price tags to vanish. The first time I asked about this, one of the clerks said it was because people’s kids tore off the tags. I really wondered whether this “don’t blame me, blame those idiots that don’t watch after their kids” defense was feasible. The next time I tried to pose the question, I put it to one of the management guys on the floor; and his tactic was to avoid answering the question by any means necessary.

I can imagine that a local manager is in an awful position. (S)he has to follow dictates from “the suits at headquarters,” even when they go against local knowledge of the customer (cancelling items that are purchased regularly in that particular store, rearranging things on the shelves to suit particular distributors, etc.). Then, when these things happen, the customers push back; and in tough economic times that push-back can sometimes get pretty harsh, if not aggressive. However, as in the model of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, anger eventually gives way to resigned acceptance, just because we no longer live in a world that offers viable alternatives (to anything, not just where we buy things, not to mention how we cast our votes).

Of course Kübler-Ross was writing about how we deal with death and dying. This is not to suggest that the entire consumer population is about to curl up and die. However, the idea of an approach to marketing that assumes, or even encourages, a population of informed consumers may well be at death’s door. Where once reformers envisaged a dictatorship of the proletariat, we now face a future dictatorship based on an oligarchy of manufacturers and merchants.  See? Change does happen!

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