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Last week, RetailWire ran a post on a new study by a professor at the University of Illinois. The gist of the study is that, in cases where “fit” is not a competitive factor in consumer decision-making, retailers should optimize retail floor space according to how much manufacturers will pay for it, even if that results in increased inconvenience for shoppers.Even typing that phrase – “increased inconvenience for shoppers” – is like nails on a chalkboard to me. And I wasn’t the only one. Most of the BrainTrust on RetailWire took the study to task. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that something more needed to be said.
What I gathered from the University’s summary of the research is that the professor, Yunchuan “Frank” Liu, has basically identified a continuum along which products sit – those that have a “high fit probability” – in other words, products where consumers aren’t very discriminating about the look/feel/fit of the product itself and are more concerned about price, and products with a “low fit probability” where consumers ARE very discriminating. In cases where fit probability is low, the professor argues that the wrong product won’t sell at any price, and therefore retailers should take manufacturer money to basically have them compete for the best position in the store. Products will be grouped by brand and not by attributes, because consumers will shop with taste as the dominant decision factor.
On the flip side, if there is a high fit probability, then manufacturers should compete on price and retailers should facilitate this competition by grouping products by attributes. Professor Liu uses the example of tables in Sears vs. tables in Bloomingdales to drive home the point – people shopping Sears for tables are shopping based on price first, fit second. Therefore, Sears stacks its tables all together. Bloomingdales groups tables with other furniture settings, all by brand, because higher-end shoppers aren’t motivated first by price. They are motivated by brand. And Bloomies presumably can take advantage of this situation by charging brands to access the most desirable traffic locations in the store, even though this can theoretically make it more difficult for shoppers looking for a table to find what they want.
This is all well and good in a theoretical setting, but cross-channel shopping patterns completely destroy the theory in practice. I think the primary reason why it doesn’t work is because of the digitization of product information, which Brian very eloquently describes in this post from last year (start at paragraph 6). While it is true that “fit” in the traditional apparel sense of the word is one of the last things to be successfully digitized, I would argue that almost anything about a product – except the physical product itself, and even books, music and videos are an exception to the exception – can be digitized, or at least understood well enough that retailers are taking on a huge risk if they inconvenience shoppers, especially in the name of manufacturers’ interests.
Let me give you a couple of scenarios to amplify where I’m coming from.
Are TV’s high fit or low fit? From watching my husband research TV’s, along with the enormous amount of information generated by other people to aid in TV selection, I have come to the conclusion that a TV is high fit. The whole problem with TV shopping, at least for Best Buy these days, is that people come into the store precisely for the fit aspect (Do I like the way this screen looks? Do I like the size of the TV? Is this going to fit in my living room?), and then end up buying somewhere else, usually online either right there at the shelf or back at home.
If TV’s are high fit, then theoretically, they should be grouped by brand. But more often than not, I see them grouped by size, or even matrixed so that you can get brand and size at the same time for at least a handful of brands. But if TV’s are high fit, then why are they so price sensitive these days? I think there are two main answers to this question. One, because they are a high-consideration item. My definition of “high consideration” is when a product is expensive enough, permanent enough, or personal enough that the purchaser puts a lot of thought into the purchase. Price is not necessarily a predictor of whether a product is high consideration, but a lot of high consideration items tend to be big purchases – when consumers spend a lot of money, they tend to think about it a lot, and that increasingly means finding out the price across a lot of different retailers. I think the other reason why TV’s are more price sensitive than before is because even when fit is primary, the store as purchase destination is not necessarily true. And that change, more than anything, blows the idea of fit vs. consumer convenience right out of the water.
If I come to your store to check out a TV before I buy it, and you make it difficult for me to compare the different TV brands I want to purchase, then I’m not coming back next time. Or I’ll come back only when my criteria has been narrowed down to one or two choices, to minimize my dependency on you. Now we’re talking about a situation where the retailer truly is just a showroom. But if the retailer is helpful, and most importantly engenders trust, then I might give you a shot in the future that I otherwise might not have.
In other words, sure you might be able to get Sony to pay through the nose to get their products featured front and center and otherwise make it difficult to compare a Sony TV against a Visio TV, but longer term that strategy might lose customers, rather than simply annoy them.
Let’s try something on the other end of the spectrum. Professor Liu uses toothbrushes, but I actually think that toothbrushes don’t get shopped all that often – I suspect that consumers pick a toothbrush they like and buy it over and over again until something big enough comes along that disrupts the cycle, like, they get a free toothbrush with toothpaste, or their brand of toothbrush is discontinued. Plus you’re supposed to replace your toothbrush, what, every 3-6 months? The initial selection of a toothbrush may qualify as high consideration – it’s crucial to your dental health, after all – but once selected, it’s below the radar for a good long time.
So let’s look at coffee. While there is probably a good portion of people out there who have previously selected a brand of coffee as a relatively high consideration purchase and now mechanically buy it week after week, I think there are a lot of people out there who could be influenced at the shelf to try other coffee brands. It’s a transient purchase, it’s relatively low value, and you’re going to be faced with exactly the same choice to make next week. It’s not the end of the world if you choose wrong.
In this scenario, the majority of fit – in this case, taste – is entirely irrelevant. Unless it’s sample day, you won’t to get to taste the coffee before you bring it home. And all of the rest of the fit can be easily digitized, because they are product attributes that have nothing to do with the physical good itself. You don’t need to smell the coffee to verify if it was grown in Colombia or Kona. And you pretty much rely on the brand’s trustworthiness as a manufacturer that what they say is “decaf” is actually decaffeinated.
And yet, at least at my two local grocery stores, I have a feeling that slotting fees have more to do with how coffee is shelved than anything else. Coffee is grouped by brand. As a consumer, this is enormously annoying and inconvenient. In fact, the first basis of selection criteria for coffee is so basic and ingrained that most people don’t even know they make it – it’s regular vs. decaf. But grocery retailers don’t even group brands according to this selection. You have to wade through a brand’s entire offering to separate decaf from regular. And the next selection is also so ingrained that you probably wouldn’t guess it unless you’re a coffee connoisseur, and that’s whole bean vs. ground. Yet, again, retailers don’t even group brands that way.
Is this “just the way it is”? For now. But when Amazon sells 240 K-cup decaf options, of which 50 are available on Prime (free two-day shipping) and a couple are even available as subscribe-and-save options, that tells me that the retailer who is thinking at all about slotting fees and floor space as a way to squeeze more out of the manufacturer is playing the wrong game. If it’s two clicks for me to find the kind of coffee I want and a saved ten minutes of grumbling at the shelf, why wouldn’t I switch?
When it comes to the store, the game today is about convenience and fun. If you trade off customer convenience, it better because you’ve added in fun. If you’re trading off customer convenience against manufacturer cash, you’re going to lose! Consumers will go someplace more convenient. And that doesn’t have to be another store – it could easily be online. And the more shoppers learn to love online shopping, the less important fit becomes.