Thursday, July 03, 2008

Channeling the thrifty Puritan

It’s no surprise that recent retail news has focused on marketing to the budget-conscious consumer. In Marketing Daily, Sarah Mahoney asks, "Will women embrace their new role as Chief Thrift Officer?" In an attempt at positive spin, she suggests that women might be "enjoying" shopping for bargains in stores and online. This would be interesting news, were it based on some actual data.

Without a doubt, every woman I talk to (whether for research or in casual conversation) complains about rising food prices and the extra effort it takes to make economical choices, find bargains, and stock the pantry without huge sacrifices. Shoppers are definitely buying less and sticking to the necessities, but it’s not a source of pleasure. Things are not dire for everyone yet: the local farm markets are packed on weekends, people still talk about inviting friends over for barbecues, and the aisles of Whole Foods are still filled with those who can afford it. But is there a shift in sensibilities for the women who do the majority of this shopping?

"Women like feeling smart and efficient," and enjoy things like finding more ways to save money with "shopping on the way" strategies, says Marti Barletta, president and CEO of TrendSight, a Winnetka, Ill.-based firm specializing in marketing to women. And in many ways, she says, this economic funk presents more appealing ways to save money. "First, unlike past downturns and recessions that have been driven by job loss, this one is largely centered on gas prices," she says. "So no one feels singled out. Everybody gets a sharp reminder every single time they gas up their car, and no one is immune from this kind of sticker shock."
Despite TrendSight’s emphasis on market research about women, their conclusions about pleasure and control seem imposed rather than discovered. No one I spoke to mentioned enjoying cutbacks or budgeting for a household. In the everyday world of providing for a family, it’s important not to confuse responsibility with control. Research has definitely shown that women are not the “gatekeepers” to what is purchased: they may have some decision-making power, but their decisions are shaped mightily by family preferences, particularly men’s likes and dislikes. And even if there was some sea change in women's responsibilities, control over a shrinking pie is definitely not the same as having control over a whole pie. One is definitely more fun.

That’s not to say that a subset of the current population doesn’t embrace a do-it-yourself ethos. Given today's circumstances, we could certainly benefit from a popularization of ideas about Slow Food, “green” living, and local lifestyles. It's an attitude that can travel across economic lines. But these approaches require more cultivation if they are to become mainstream, so that combining pleasure with thriftiness is a general value. We can’t fault TrendSight for wishful thinking. But while there’s potential for wealthier women consumers to practice comparative shopping, it’s important not to gloss over the real sacrifices and hardships that some people are already facing. So what practices can take both into account?

In a recent New York Times piece, Ron Lieber highlights a somewhat upscale small grocery chain in Cleveland, discovering that stores can keep customers loyal by helping them buy quality goods in the most economical fashion. His list of things grocers and shoppers can do is terrific. Key pieces include having knowledgeable sales staff, figuring out how to cut waste, and finding alternative high-end food products at slightly lower costs.

It seems that the important news here is that engaging in thrifty practices without sacrificing high standards and quality products is a job for both retailers and their mostly women customers. But I’m betting most people will do it without the forced optimism and hokey title of Chief Thrift Officer.

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