Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Science of Shopping

Some of us go shopping to just be up-to-date with what is around us - what we commonly know as 'window-shopping'- which means that you do not have any specific need or requirement that you want to fulfil, but visit a retail space to become aware of the latest products and services or even the fashion trends.

Some of us go shopping because it makes us feel good - you find yourself amidst people who are fulfilling their needs and wants by purchasing products or brands for their consumption - there is excitement, chaos, commotion and an elated feeling of well-being - which can ward-off any feeling of gloom or depression. Thus shopping becomes therapeutic - known as 'retail therapy' (I believe that many women are programmed at birth to be natural shoppers.and I've known many husbands who encourage their wives to go shopping, either with wads of cash or with half a dozen plastic cards, as that would give them that rare sense of freedom - very therapeutic in a different way!

Some of us go shopping to kill time or to just catch-up with friends or to take a break between work or home or just as an escape from routine. With the advent of malls, shopping has become an outing for most families, members of which are busy during the week in their respective jobs, but find time to meet over weekends. They visit malls or shopping centres together, thus engaging in an act of fulfilling their individual and collective needs as a family and also being in one another's company (which is why retailers and malls experience an increased level of customer traffic over weekends).

Even the way we shop differs; some of us make a detailed check-list of all the things to buy, especially when we go shopping for our monthly/fortnightly supply of groceries and home needs (and usually end up buying more than what is in the list!). Some of us get into a store and fill the carts with whatever seems appealing to us. When on one of your shopping trips you discover an unfamiliar product on the shelves, your curiosity is aroused and when you enquire or read up about it, you suddenly realise an uncontrollable urge to possess it! It's also true that some of us shop like there is no tomorrow! Shopping means and does different things to different people.

The title of the now popular book 'Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus' is very true about retail as well. Paco Underhill, a researcher of shopping trends, has a modified version of that belief. He says 'Men are from Sears Hardware (a chain of hardware stores in the US) and women are from Bloomingdale's (a popular chain of department stores in the US)'. His research at a houseware store in the US showed that women shopping with other women spent 8 minutes and 15 seconds on an average; while women with children took about 7 minutes and 19 seconds. When women shopped by themselves; they spent 5 minutes and 2 seconds. When women shopped with men, they spent only 4 minutes and 41 seconds inside the shop! Now how's that to prove who the naturally gifted shopper is?

I'm tempted to invite these researchers to India and let them study the behaviour and patterns of how Indian women shop for sarees and jewellery! I'm sure that will throw some mind boggling statistics, worthy of considering for the book of records! Retailer's in India are becoming aware of who makes the major purchase decisions for the family and are designing their communication and store ambience to attract and increase the dwell-time of their target customers.

The Retailers' Deepawali

Will the coming Deepawali be as bright, if not brighter than, the last one? But, why are we asking that question in the first place? What with the global economy slowing down, spreading its gloom on the otherwise chirpy Indian economy? What with the inflation almost breaching the psychological barrier and what with India, almost stopping short of slipping into a technical recession? Will the festival of lights this year dispel darkness and usher in light? That's the question bothering the retail fraternity, as it is lurking somewhere in the minds of corporate India.

Let's examine the situation closely - first, the economy. Inflation has begun to recede and is now closer to the 12% mark rather than the 13% mark that it recorded recently. But yet more than double the cruising speed of 6% that it was at the beginning of this year. What does that mean? It means that money is becoming more expensive. We are having to pay more than usual for the goods and services that we WANT - like air travel; eating out at restaurants; staying at star hotels etc; which is mostly going to be the concern of corporates; whose executives travel; stay at hotels and eat at restaurants outside of their home stations. Not just that, we are also having to pay more for the goods and services that we NEED - such as everyday food and grocery; vegetables and fruits and not to mention, fuel - which is what pinches the pockets of people like you and me. Will the rising cost of goods and services dampen the Deepawali spirit?

Well, at the outset, what I have personally noticed is that people's expenditure on fire crackers over the years has been declining. I don't remember when I last spent on fire crackers for the family. Urban India is becoming increasingly aware of the environmental pollution that firecrackers contribute towards and want to do their bit in not adding to it. Therefore, I foresee a far lesser expenditure on fireworks in metros and mini-metros. What else happens in the world of retail during the festive season?

There are bound to be offers and promotions galore in practically all formats of retail - mostly retailers of electronics; apparel; silk and jewellery will come up with their most innovative marketing spells yet! In electronics for example, there will be freebies on every purchase - only that earlier, you could expect to get a water-filter free if you bought a 29" TV, but now it could well be that you may get a 350lt double-door refrigerator free with every 32" LCD TV that you buy! The supermarkets and hypermarkets will not be left alone - they will run their own versions of offers and promotions - you will probably be in the running for a grand prize of a BMW - in a lucky draw if you made purchases over say, Rs.4,999. No, there is not even the remotest connection between onions or potatoes and a Beemer!

What more, you may even get interest free credit - seemingly of course; when you buy that 52" plasma TV, and want to pay in 36 instalments. Remember, our country is blessed with some of the best brains in the marketing world - haven't you seen how many golden lions our advertising agencies have amassed at the Cannes? We can make any event - from blockbusters to cricket matches into money spinners; with related merchandise, freebies and other memorabilia. On the flip side, you and I have long put on hold the intention to buy that 3BHK apartment or upgrade to a swanky sedan. But certainly, we are not the kind that will put away the idea of picking up 3 shirts for Rs.999 and getting 2 trousers worth Rs.1,299 free! Are we?

At least not when such purchases happen in an impulse; when you are least expecting them. Add to that, most of us have enough credit cards in our wallets that collectively can put a plastic manufacturer's warehouse to shame; bulging from hip-pockets of already unsteady denims that are precariously hanging from indescribable waist-lines! Well, who's bothered about shirts and trousers during Deepawali? Shouldn't we be talking of silk sarees, gold earrings, bangles and necklaces? Of course, we should. Silk merchants are an uncelebrated lot. It is surprising that in a nation of close to 400 million women, most of who wear sarees, there is no organised saree retail chain across the country. The lure of silk or even non-silk sarees on women is a subject matter worthy of exclusive treatment. Remember, here too, there are bound to be promotions and offers. Who says you need promotions and offers for women to shop for sarees? Thankfully, gold prices have begun to go southwards after the peak that they were at some months ago. And, jewelry retailers are about to woo the women folk with their 'NO making charges' offers. There is a popular belief that 'Man is a victim of circumstances' - I would believe so, if he is married or has an equally compassionate girlfriend!

Therefore, with none of us wanting to cut down on our accustomed lifestyles and habits and having put away major capital intensive and wasteful purchases; the average Indian is going be unaffected by rising prices, just as he is unaffected by the pot-hole ridden roads; incessant power-cuts and dry taps that are all part of India at 61. Come what may, there is nothing that would dampen the spirit of a true Indian and definitely not during the festival of lights! Retailers may not touch unreasonably aggressive targets but will have their cash registers ringing nevertheless.