Thanks Chris, for the introduction. As mentioned, I am currently located at a firm that designs consumer environments, most often for specific brands. By and large, we work with grocery stores, big box retailers, convenience stores and consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs). This position has allowed me access to the world of consumerism, which I’m hoping to write about more, and Savage Minds has kindly given me a space to think about this. What you’ll find in this and subsequent posts is a mix of semi-shaped insights and under-theorized observations. I hope to receive feedback, reflection and productive criticisms from some of the readers, responders and even lurkers on this blog. So, this is where my thoughts begins…
Advertising is dead.
Okay, not truly dead, in the sense of irrelevant, but certainly plateaued in certain areas—a problem which, in today’s capitalist economy, is as good as dead. I’m talking, more specifically, about American advertising in its traditional sense, the Mad Men-era of nationally televised mainstream commercialism. Recent reports suggest that the efficacy of this form of advertising is stagnating, in all likelihood due to over-saturation of messages, the changing ways we watch television and shop, increasing skepticism among people about advertising (though that’s debatable), the proliferation of media sources and other causes.
That’s not to say we are buying less, consuming less or being influenced less. Instead, our consumer culture is currently shifting where and how it gets shaped. Consider some of the following statistics, which may mark a shift in the consumer landscape, particularly as it relates to grocery stores and big box retailers, my central sites of interest:
—According to a 2009 Nielsen report, 50% of consumers are becoming aware of products for the first time inside of a store, while 71% are becoming aware simply by seeing them on the shelf, not in commercial ads. (www.adage.com)
—The store beat TV as an awareness driver by a 50% to 36% margin in 2008 vs. a bare 52% to 48% margin four years earlier. And the margin is even wider among heavy category buyers (three times likelier than average to buy a product), by a 55% to 35% spread (Source: www.supermarketguru.com)
—A recent study, called “The Elements Report,” claimed only 27% of consumers would call ads “very effective.” (www.brandweek.com)
While we, as anthropologists, might balk at using these statistics as markers of cultural shift, it is nonetheless important to recognize how the corporate world responds to them.
In pursuing new opportunities for more effective advertising, marketing departments have sought alternatives to traditional advertising, attempting to leverage the proliferation of media, especially the internet. Online marketing has experienced rapid growth in the last several years. The majority of that ad spending has focused on all of the flashing images now invading most websites. Meanwhile, the majority of reporting about internet marketing seems focused on the rise of social media in marketing, especially sites like twitter and facebook.
My work, however, doesn’t look at internet advertising and its follies, or the infiltration of advertising into everyday life. I guess if there is one thing I have learned through my experience in the business world, it’s that business is much more vast, fragmented, plural and complex than most portraits of capitalism can seem to fully capture. I am constantly amazed to encounter yet another multi-billion dollar regional company or field of expertise employing thousands of people that I had never heard of before and whose business will likely never be written up in the Wall Street Journal or any other major business media source, much less a social science text. As a case in point, I’m consider the emergence and growth of a field now named “Shopper Marketing.”
In the words of a 2007 Deloitte study on shopper marketing, “stores should be thought of like any other marketing media.” Put otherwise, shopper marketing is the “science” of how marketing can communicate to and influence people at the point of decision-making: inside stores. As such, it touches on a number of issues, from shifting categories of “consumer” and “shopper” in the corporate world, to the way the shopper environment affects shopper behavior, to, of course, the changing nature of consumerism today.
Before I get too carried away hyping a brave new world that will somehow revolutionize consumerism as we know it, let me bring this field into context and down to earth—very down to earth. Shopper marketing includes an expanding purview, but has traditionally focused on product packaging, category management and in-store promotions. In other words, I’m talking about annoying plastic wrappers and cardboard cutout displays in the aisles of your local grocery store. These things are big business.
While packaging and product displays are somewhat familiar to most people, what is less well known is the role of category management in retail stores: shelf space management, assortment, promotions and pricing decisions. Industry leaders in each category of the grocery store create what are called planograms, basically diagrams for where a grocery store should place products on the shelf. This is not random and not based on a store manager’s preferences. Consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs) pay “slotting fees” to rent space in a store, which is a sizable source of income for store chains (though not a profit growth source—they still need to sell stuff!). Depending on the category, planograms are changed periodically and CPGs are constantly making the case to their grocery store customers why their products, properly placed, will result in bigger sales for the store. Depending on the chain, different CPGs may have more or less power to sway the planogram. There is, in other words, a battle taking place on a continual basis over which products get sold and where they get placed inside of a grocery store. And this warfare has become increasingly “scientific” and data-driven.
In a certain sense, the field that has only rather recently been dubbed “shopper marketing” is not actually new. Merchants and shops have used visual merchandising to great effect for a very long time. What is new is 1) the naming of the field, 2) the more data-driven/scientific approach and 3) the potential impending shift for where consumer brands most prominently and centrally tell their story to consumers. Previously, the 30-second TV commercial spot was king, but now any number of marketing media forms could become equally important, depending on the brand.
While difficult to pinpoint, the emergence of “shopper marketing” as a specific discipline seems to stem from Procter & Gamble’s Walmart team, which dedicated an increasing amount of time, money and attention to the dynamics of the store environment, and how it related to sales. This then became a major initiative for the entire company, called “store back.” Starting at least in 2008, P&G is now spending more money on shopper marketing and trade promotions (marketing at the middle men) than on media spending ($3.5 billion vs. $3.2 billion)—which is notable because P&G spends more on marketing than any company in the world. (source: www.adage.com). Another signpost of shopper marketing’s emergence as a corporate discipline has been the renaming of the P-O-P trade magazine (Point Of Purchase) to Shopper Marketing. By and large, the magazine continues to focus on the latest news about cardboard display fixtures found throughout the retail world, but there seems to be a sense of greater urgency, attention and importance generated by the new name.
The legacy of shopper marketing extends beyond cardboard fixtures. It is closely tied to the emergence of the bar code—first developed in the early 1950s and then widely implemented in the 1970’s—and its attendant impulse towards a kind of Weberian rationalization of the retail industry. In the words of one industry pioneer of that time, “point of sale scanning technology” (i.e. barcodes) created, “opportunities for improving shelf space management, assortment, promotion, and pricing decisions [that] could be identified and supported by data rather than based on traditional, often more emotion-based, decision-making methods.” This technology essentially gave new meaning to the question of what sells best, as the science of understanding the relationship between shoppers and the products they choose could more easily be studied, quantified and analyzed. Experiments in the store environment, including placement of products and packaging could now be studied to discover their effectiveness, essentially establishing the foundation for a science of shopping.
Although the “science” of this kind of marketing is sometimes debated and questions constantly arise about the messy, qualitative side of this discipline—something I can discuss more, later on—powerful statistics act as a call to shopper marketing. Namely:
—70% of brand selections are made at stores
—68% of buying decisions are unplanned, and
—5% of consumers are loyal to the brand of just one product group (Stahlberg & Maila 2010)
In other words, while sometimes highly effective, there seems to be something very ineffective with traditional marketing, advertising and branding efforts. As a result, shopper marketing budgets are growing rapidly.
Beyond a multi-sited ethnographic portrait of an emergent phenomenon in the contemporary world—this one relevant, I believe, in light of current crises in our consumer-centric economy—I think this site is also interesting perspective from which to think about the role of ethnography, and research on human behavior more generally, in applied business fields.
This, more or less situates me in my everyday job: working for an architecture, design and brand strategy firm that, at times, does shopper marketing projects (we would never call ourselves a shopper marketing firm, however). In this capacity, I could use my everyday, on-the-job research as the basis for ethnographic work, if granted permission. In other words, I might produce “mini” ethnographies of grocery stores, convenience stores or restaurants, providing insight on American shopping habits and consumer customs. And there are precedents for this, including Marshal Sahlins’ classic Culture And Practical Reason (1976), which picks apart the symbolic life of food and clothing—what he calls la pensee bourgeoise. Daniel Miller’s more recent work is another great source for reflections on consumerism today.
While important, I’m nonetheless more inclined to study the role of research-based knowledge (including, but not limited to ethnography) in shopper marketing, and the role of shopper marketing in the corporate/consumer landscape. The amount of research happening in the corporate world right now is unspeakably vast, however problematic many consider it. Characterizing this research is an enormous challenge, even in specific places.
This is not a question of the validity of ethnographic work outside of academia—all knowledge-production is shaped and situated—what I’m trying to focus on is the way research is used in a specific location, shaped and provided explanatory force. The problem is how data sources, information and knowledge about shoppers and shopping are influenced by, transformed, translated and ultimately re-appropriated by companies that employ or contract anthropologists and other researchers.
Upcoming posts will try to point to some of the locations I’m thinking about and looking at.