We conducted a small survey on supermarket shopping behaviour using the agency staff as our sample group of around 50.
It was relatively unscientific, however, the aim was to crudely test one particular covert thought.
We simply asked our respondents if they used a shopping list when visiting the supermarket.
For those who answered 'yes' we asked them to provide an example of a typical shopping list.
For those who answered 'no' we asked them to jot down what their mental list might typically be, anyway.
This gave us some interesting feedback - scribbled paper lists were by far the most popular, followed by self-text messages - and among this group no-one used a list-type app.
But that wasn't what we were really looking at.
Recently we've been reading Herb Sorensen's 2009 book 'Inside the Mind of the Shopper'.
His research that suggests that:
1. Around half of supermarket trips result in baskets of 5 items or less.
2. The most common basket size is just one item.
(This data is further referenced in the Byron Sharp textbook 'Marketing: Theory, Evidence, Practice' Chapter 8.)
Close to 90% of our responses contained 5 items or fewer.
The other 10% were 6.
For psych fans, and in the context of of Millers Law - The Magic Number 7, this was also curious.
The 'law' asserts that humans can retain 7 (plus or minus 2) pieces of information easily in working memory.
It turns out that this is less of a law and more of a decent hunch, the real number is closer to 5.
We could infer then, that shopping lists (list apps or other ‘solutions’) don’t necessarily add any utility to shoppers. We are reasonably capable of remembering 5 things.
More on shopping technology in a minute.
So our data was obviously slightly skewed as midweek shopping trips will be more likely to be quick trips, but you get the general idea, and our mode was 2 (pretty close to 1).
(Milk, bread and tissues in case you are wondering.)
Again, all this was interesting but not what I wanted to observe.
What I was looking for was specific brand name mentions.
And among the 86 different product categories listed by our respondents were only two instances of brand names.
Everything else was generic category - bread, milk, fruit, meat, tissues etc.
This seemed to be clear indication that, for the most part, people set out to buy from categories first, brands come second.
Of course preferences do exist, but these are more implicit rather than explicit.
In many fmcg categories brand either doesn't exist or is invisible (meat, fruit, vegetables) might exist but have little or no effect (bread, milk) and in the categories where it does have some influence the brand that gets bought is the one most salient at the point, and context of purchase.
Familiarity, popularity, habit and availability drive FMCG categories.
Unlike fashion or cars for example there is no 'display' or 'social' value for consumers.
One's choice of washing powder does not signal anything to anyone else.
It is simply something to be consumed.
Display value is only a marginally stronger pull anyway.
This is the eternal conundrum for commodity type brands.
All of which is the long way round to looking at Amazon Dash.
The Dash Button is a single-use Wi-Fi enabled ordering device for a selected set of partners including Gillette, Pampers, Tide and Olay. You press it and it orders directly - and frictionless - for you.
The promise of, for example, self-replenishing fridges, has long been part of the lore of 'the internet of things' and this appears to be Amazon’s play in that area, allowing customers to instantly repeat buy partner brands without thinking about it, more importantly, without being distracted by a competing brand at the shelf.
For the remainder of this piece we need to put aside any notions of could/should.
Amazon (and the other SV corporate giants) winner-takes-all disintermediation of every category imaginable is another debate.
Though as Andrew Keen quotes in 'The Internet is Not The Answer'.
“In Darwinian terms these new corporate giants are just the latest stage in the evolution of the public corporation, they exist to create wealth—vast quantities of it—for their founders and shareholders.
Their imperative is to grow and achieve dominance in their chosen markets—as well as in others which they now deem to be within their reach. They are as hostile to trade unions, taxation, and regulation as John D. Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie ever were in their day. The only difference is that the new titans employ far fewer people, enjoy higher margins and are less harassed by governments than their predecessors.”
For FMCG brands, however, this is of little concern. Distribution is distribution.
What's interesting here is not the idea that push button instant replenishment is anything to do with notions of brand loyalty (active, in an attitudinal sense).
But is everything about enabling 'loyalty' in the passive behavioural sense.
On the one hand, commodity products with no display value can try and create 'meaning' by spending on huge emotional advertising - eg P&G's 'Thank You Mom' and the like.
Being famous and familiar will always be important.
But the Dash Button is somehow more refreshingly Nietzschean in it's acceptance of the kind of emptiness of consumption. In reaching acceptance that it will never be loved Tide is now happy just to be bought.
Who will press a button to order Tide? Or 5 boxes of Tide?
Well, we've already seen that people will trek to the supermarket for less than five items.
And most of the time for just one.
To come back to Professor Sharp's idea of brand salience, by which we mean the propensity of a particular brand to come to mind in a particular buying or usage situation.
If the buying situation occurs at the point of usage, ie in front of the washing machine then the brand that was last used, and the brand on the button becomes the most salient by default. No other brand is in it.
This is what Dave Trott might describe as 'getting upstream of the problem'.
People will never love their soap powder brand, but will be inclined to repeat purchase out of habit providing nothing else gets in the way.
So make sure nothing else gets in the way, then.
There's a statement attributed to Jeff Bezos that we often recall and use.
Bezos says that - given that Amazon are a cutting-edge tech retailer - people are interested in their innovation pipeline and therefore he often fields questions asking about what Jeff thinks might change in business in the next 5-10 years.
His reply is that he is more interested in what will stay the same. Because you can build a business on things that are stable in time.
People will always want things faster and cheaper.>