Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Text Me Those Bargains

Like some bad stereotype come to life, I find I have a teenage daughter who can text faster than lightening. She can hold three conversations at once: one with me about something she left at home on her way to school, another with her local friends about what everyone is doing today, and a third with her Massachusetts buddies about what movie they saw last week. She even has mittens with flip top thumbs, so she can text comfortably even when it’s cold outdoors.

While I’m not as fast as she is, I use texting a lot more frequently as a means of communication for shopping. We email grocery lists as text messages, send photo messages to friends to see if the color or style of an item is what they want (before they buy it), and most importantly, check in with other folks to see if a bargain item is still there, on sale, or at another store. Even without barcode scanning capacity (which some phones actually do have), the cell phone is an ideal way of instantly finding out if one store is less expensive than another.

Scarborough Research has done a recent survey of “Texters” and generalizes that most texters are young, active, spend a lot on their cell phone bills and technology in general, and do a fair amount of shopping on line.The study indicates that in cities like El Paso, Salt Lake City, Dallas, and Memphis young consumers use the greatest amount of text messaging. Further, the study suggests that there’s racial diversity among this demographic, which also shapes their consumer tastes. Market researchers are already salivating over the possibilities in “tween” and teen markets (a new study by the University of North Carolina even suggests that the cell phone text message can be used as a motivational device to help monitor teen behavior and increase weight loss!), so the minority-tech savvy market seems almost too good to be true. But Scarborough's findings about the group's interests lack depth. Michael Hastings Black makes a great point about this: if viewed properly, social media can actually illustrate a greater complexity to consumption and identity among people of color, particularly since the content is being created by the individuals rather than for them!

While there is definitely a segment of the consumer market that fits the profile, I’m not convinced market researchers should be encapsulating text message users as a consumer category “texters.” The research identifies a subgroup, one that may prove profitable to manufacturers of certain types of goods (sports events and gear, music and concerts, media-based and technology-driven items, for example). At the same time, my ethnographic observations and other cell phone use surveys suggest that texting is becoming a general part of consumer behavior, more broadly distributed across the population than this study suggests. The Nielson group reported in September that most mobile customers are receiving more text messages than actual phone calls. Indeed, they cite a 450% increase in text messaging since the same time period two years ago!) One group I almost never see texting is people 65 and older (the only exception I noted was in relation to President-Elect Obama’s campaign use of text messaging to let supporters know about such things as his choice of Vice President. One older woman said to me, “I’d never gotten one of those before!”) More than other new technologies, the current platforms for texting favor those with experience using small keys. It’s taken so long for computer screens and keyboards to be adapted for use by older readers who need bigger text, it’s not surprising that the current cell phone designs favor users with small fingers and good eyesight.

While technology marketing tends to fawn over the users described in Scarborough’s study, it would be a mistake to aim ad campaigns more pointedly towards this group rather than expanding the possibilities by paying closer attention to social media. And, lest there be a post without mentioning our current economic state, keep in mind that young consumers are not necessarily the ones who’ll be controlling the household spending as we ride through the recession.

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