L’embarras du choix – the reality of shopping in the web driven world

L'embarras du choix – the reality of shopping in the web driven world

My father, who was an avid francophile and, after years of living in Paris and negotiating with the French military over the purchase of aircraft, knew the French fairly well, always used to use this phrase – “the embarrassment of choice”.  And that was in the 1960s.

There has been so much written in the last half-century about how modern civilisation allows an almost limitless choice in terms of what we wear, what we eat, how we drink our coffee (or tea), and what type of vehicle we drive.  We’ve had the so-called move from Henry Ford’s “you can have whatever colour you want as long as it’s black”, to designer cars built especially for women, and then to the confusion of trying to choose a salad dressing in a New York diner (my personal favourite).

But, it seems those halcyon days are gone, or at least going, as the large chain stores and supermarkets opt for increasing the number of generic homebrands and reduce the amount of stock of other products on shelves.  That is certainly my experience and the rising level of frustration at my own Woollies is growing, particularly as they either seem to continually run out of fairly stock standard products, or, on a whim decide not to stock them.

This morning on the ABC I listened to the conversation on the “Morning” programme and it struck me that there is now a wonderful contradiction at play.

Throughout the marketing world the talk is about the “empowered consumer” and “consumer driven” marketing.  As I have written previously companies are now collecting more data on consumer behaviour than ever before, and Woollies has their own “ap” to make that even simpler.

And yet … it would seem that the direction of the companies is away from what the consumers want and towards what works best for them, their own brand domination and a “dumbing down” of the market.

One caller commented that as people find less and less of what they want in stores they are more likely to shop on the internet, and then the retailers can’t blame them for doing so.  Another said that he didn’t mind the “homebrand” as such, but his experience was that quality just wasn’t there.

As with all of these profound changes affecting every part of our lives we seem to have a disconnect.  The “big boys” are continuing to want to play it their way, working against the individuality of customers and trying to enforce what they want to sell rather than what people want to buy, but people are demanding more precisely they know it is available.  There is, in fact, a discrimination against choice and the individual but the individual is more empowered with the power to choose.

So, what is going on here?  Are these companies just simply not listening and assuming that all markets want to be genericised or are we, the people looking at this from the “human” perspective completely missing the plot?

The reality is that there is a whole school of anthropology around the “material” world and material culture, and minds far greater than mine have been researching this for decades.  The science of why we prefer one product to another in terms of how we use products, and not how someone has determined they should be used, is quite sophisticated, and explains to a very large degree why Apple has been so successful and why other platforms and systems, despite being “functional”, are perceived to be less user friendly and intuitive.  Apple products often just look and feel better, despite being more expensive for many years.

There is also the question of “authenticity”.  For Woolworths to say “we’re committed to providing our customers with the most enjoyable, quality shopping experience possible” is just not true.  They are committed to getting me in the store, to trying to get me to buy as much as they can.  For Coles I couldn’t even find a similar type of statement on the Coles website so maybe they are more authentic in that they just want to push their products.

How do I feel about this?  The reality is that I feel like they are treating me as a source of information through their statements about wanting me to interact with them by giving them my data, but there is very little in it for me.  Others, it seems, feel the same as this research from the US shows.  As Andrew Keen says

“We are essentially becoming data in the twenty first century but we are not really profiting from it.”

Shopping is, like all other transactions, a relationship, even a groceries one.  I want to be confident that if I buy something I will not be disappointed, regardless of whether that’s online or in the physical world.  If now I can’t even know what I’m going to get one week to the next when I go to Woollies then I will be even more likely to try alternative means, because if I have to spend time shopping then I want to at least get when I’m looking for.  My interest is in maximising the value of my time, and that means expecting that I will be able to get the same this week as last week, if that’s what I want.  If I want something different then I want to choose that.

I shall be watching with interest but my guess is that these companies don’t really understand their digital brands, nor the potential impact this could have on them.  And the more this happens the more likely I am to shop online, for groceries and all, and care less about the protests of the retail sector in this country.

The truth is that with so much around us perhaps we have become “embarrassed” by the choices around us.  We should not be, we should be celebrating our individuality and our differences as we talk about in all other facets of our lives.  We should realise that these choices we have are the product of thousands of years of cultural evolution, something that others less fortunate eye with envy.

This is also a reflection on our apathy towards other things happening around us, the overly bureaucratic government systems, our disillusionment with political leaders and our often push towards mediocrity rather than excellence.

All is within our power to change if we simply celebrate that power of choice.  And are prepared to fight to keep it.