Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Is Price the only ‘P’ that Matters Now?

As consumers and retailers settle into the new frugality, IRI reported last week on the emergence of a new generation of Americans – the Downturn Generation. As shoppers, this generation is adopting practices similar to Depression-era shoppers, implemented both to weather the recession and to keep a close eye on spending long after the recession ends. This marks a dramatic change in how consumers shop and what they buy.

When people lose their jobs, they value their time differently. In today’s economy, convenience-based value propositions are losing their appeal as people are repricing their free time. In fact, IRI found that “65% of shoppers reported that price is becoming more important than convenience in their purchases."

But how do they know when a price is a good deal. In conversations with homeowners in December, it was clear that they are well-aware of the current price of items they buy regularly. Under those circumstances, consumers are generally able to evaluate an offer, and know when they are being overcharged. This may be changing.

A recent NY Times article about today’s consumer mindset the title of which says it all: “Never Mind What It Costs. Can I Get 70% Off?” The point of the story is that consumers are numb to 50% off offers, giving rise to a vicious cycle of discounting to motivate a purchase. Trouble is, this type of downward price spiral does not build loyalty. In fact, it’s the opposite of loyalty – it rewards customers for being fickle. And it requires retailers to reorient their value chain to make up for what they lose on the top line by selling more. While many have famously claimed “we’ll make it up on volume,” few have actually succeeded.

Enter Starbucks into the fray. The brand that brought us the idea - if not the reality - of the Italian café experience, has been criticized for the high price of its lattes and is under siege from McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, among others. Last weekend, the retailer began a campaign to combat extreme price pressure and the media blitz behind McDonald’s McCafe launch. The campaign warns readers to “Beware of a cheaper cup of coffee. It comes with a price.” According to Starbucks CMO Terry Davenport and reported in an article in the May 1 issue of AdAge, “The ads lay out facts that separate Starbucks from the competition, such as its practice of buying fair-trade beans and providing health care for employees who work more than 20 hours a week.”

Are people today more sensitive to the need for worker benefits like health insurance? Do mass market consumers value the fact that Starbucks provides coverage to part time workers? Do they make the connection between the price they pay and the company’s ability to afford coverage? Two years ago, the answers would have been “no.” Starbucks is making us connect the dots between our values and our willingness to pay. It may give us a chance to see whether this recession has changed these perceptions. Kudos to Starbucks for trying.

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