Are we Accidental Hoarders?

I drove past my local Tesco on Sunday morning, “drove past” being the operative words! Security had most roadways in and out of carpark coned off and there was a crowd reminiscent of Stamford Bridge just before a Chelsea home game queuing in a less-than-orderly fashion outside. Leaving aside the obvious health risks of what can only be described as disorganised chaos devoid of any attempt at social distancing, truth is I couldn’t be bothered to join the hoards and happily decided chicken gravy granules weren’t that important anyway!

These are very interesting time for someone who studies consumer behaviour and retail marketing. Is the panic-buying as bad as it seems on TV (or did outside my local Tesco)? How much of the empty shelves are down to the customer and is the retailer really that blameless in all this? And what will the longer term implications be for supermarkets themselves?

Well, to dispel the myth, consumers are not hoarding endless supplies of loo rolls and pasta as the media would have us believe, at least not according to data from market research agency Kantar reported in Marketing Week. In fact, UK average spends were up only about 16% overall the week this hit the news and, despite a blip of 60% and 55% increases in toilet tissue and pasta respectively, things pretty soon settled down again. Moreover, only less than 6% of shoppers accounted for these peaks anyway, the vast majority of us just buying the occasional extra pack of something, often in response to media frenzy. Most of us, it seems, are “accidental” hoarders at the moment.

So what of the behaviour of the supermarkets themselves? Those who work on the front-line in retail food stores are, quite rightly in my view, designated as key workers and – much as I always enjoyed being a retailer myself years ago – I wouldn’t swap jobs with them for a second at the moment. Hard work and vital work in times such as these. The status of the shop floor workers, though, is in my view shielding the retailers (i.e. senior management) themselves from criticism at the moment and that’s not going to prove sustainable.

Bottom-line is that there is a very obvious supply chain management weakness here, as far as I can see, and the images of “panic-buyers” are at times serving as a smokescreen. There is no way that the main supermarkets, who sit on massive stockpiles of the nation’s food, should be experiencing empty shelves quite on the scale they are at present. The food is there, but it is in the wrong place at the wrong time, so we do really need to think about decisions taken by those responsible for supply chain logistics. And when emotive TV reports of key workers unable to buy food go viral, well the quite proper decision to address the problem with the sudden introduction of dedicated shopping hours, rather than phasing them in over a couple of days, simply compounds the problem even further. It’s like a sudden train failure between London and Peterborough causing delays further up the East Coast Mainline, dragging on for days because all the trains end up in the wrong place! Retail success is alwaysa complex equation involving parameters of demand and supply – decisions by both consumer and retailers here are causing the current problems.

So what are the longer-term implications for the supermarkets themselves? We as consumers are quite fickle and remember the negative experiences more readily than the positive ones. Despite being relatively loyal to Sainsbury’s over the years, for instance, I for one won’t forget that they couldn’t offer me a delivery spot for three weeks when Asda (not a retailer i’ve ever bought from online before) could deliver what I needed in just three days. There is likely to be a slight reshuffling of the pack in terms of our supermarket patronage in the longer-term – we have longmemories!

Interestingly, to end on a positive note, one retailer that may weather the storm better than others may be Morrisons. While the other supermarkets blundered into poorly-considered knee-jerk responses and made some supply chain errors as a consequence, they by contrast took a far more strategic approach and took time to reconsider their core businessproposition. Sure, Morrisons suffered from empty shelves and disgruntled customers just like the others, but they also took stock and re-engineered their operations relatively quickly. The convenient food parcels were a pretty neat idea, it has to be said, and the decision to ramp up online operations, both directly and through their partnership with Amazon Prime, is starting to work well because it was backed up by the conversion of around 100 stores into additional distribution points and the recruitment of about 2500 extra drivers and food-pickers. Adjusting for current circumstances, Morrisons’ sales are up around 6% in actual terms and they are doing better than their rivals – let us hope it proves a sustainable strategy too, given the company has not faired well of late in competitive terms.

Why does all this matter? Well, because if there is one key lesson from this crisis – as there always is from any crisis – is that what the UK needs longer term is increased competition!

Memory and the Morning After

hangoverSomething about New Year’s Day that makes many psychologists feel obliged to have an alcohol-related post. Perhaps it’s because the subject is topical, and so the post is more likely to be read, or maybe it’s just that psychologists themselves are experiencing that heavy-headed feeling and are looking for a reason to rationalise their own self-indulgence.  Who knows!  Oh well, if you can’t beat them…

Some readers will undoubtedly be experiencing one or two hazy memories today.  The “did I really do that” effect or the “what happened after 1am” phenomenon, perhaps?  By far the most common case of alcohol amnesia is the inability to accurately recall someone’s face, apparently. Ever woke up with someone’s phone number – maybe someone you seem to recollect being quite “hot” at the time it was written – but find yourself now unable to remember anything more that the fact that (s)he had very red hair and was dressed in black?  More frequent an occurrence than we might think!

Turns out there’s a very good cognitive explanation for this sudden facial amnesia, according to a recent paper by Harvey and Tomlinson in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.  In an interesting series of experiments involving student volunteers – who proved surprisingly willing to indulge themselves with alcohol – the authors found that something strange happens to the way we process and store information about others as intoxication takes hold.  Specifically, whereas the brain normally processes information about other people in a very holistic way, identifying defining facial feature or mannerisms, for instance, as well as more external details such as the size of a person’s ears or the colour of their hair, it appears that alcohol intoxication diverts attention to the latter characteristics only.  Put another way, the more we’ve had to drink, the more likely it is that we will ignore harder-to-process information like the colour of someone’s eyes or the length or their nose, our lazy brains instead simply referencing them by the colour and length of their hair (or indeed its absence!).  The result – we remember the shape of the head and its framing by the hair, but very little else.

So there we are… a nice straightforward explanation for often-temporary facial recall problems.  There’s a serious side to this, of course – Harvey and Tomlinson’s findings have important implications for eye-witness testimony when the victim or witness to a crime are under the influence of alcohol.  But for this New Year’s Day post, it perhaps also explains why those of you who are single (or maybe not!) are unable to quite remember why that guy/girl you apparently spent so much time talking to you last night seemed to be the one of your dreams!  Never mind, better luck next (or I guess this) year…

Marketing to the Inner Narcissist

Narcissists can be a pain, can’t they?  Conceited, arrogant, grandiose, that sense of entitlement and, when they don’t get their own, rather prone to adopting a somewhat irritating victim mentality. Narcissism can, perhaps understandably, often be seen as a rather negative term. Indeed, when taken to extremes, we even diagnose it as a disorder. And when it comes to consumption, it is the narcissist that loves to display the expensive Rolex watch, wear high-end designer clothing and cruise around town in that shiny new luxury car. The show-off, in other words.

Like it or not, though, psychologists have long known that we are all narcissists at heart (or at least ‘in brain’). Personality inventories of all theoretical persuasions capture scores on a trait of narcissism that, to varying extents, are associated with particular patterns of purchasing. Know a person’s level of trait narcissism and you can determine the likelihood that they will buy your particular brand of designer perfume – or at least that’s the logic, for traits alone are notoriously weak predictors of actual consumer buying.

Thanks to recent advances in evolutionary psychology and neuromarketing, however, we now understand narcissism a lot better and are in a position to leverage it more effectively in our marketing practices. Rather than being regarded as a trait, it is more helpful to think of narcissism as a state; something variable within all of us, which personality tests are simply identifying a baseline level of. If we want to sell a product that appeals to the narcissist, we just need to craft marketing messages that raise the target customer’s narcissistic state.

State narcissism is the output of what I would term the narcissismDRD, one of those hard-wired deep-rooted drivers (DRDs) of behaviour that evolved in our hunter-gatherer past to solve problems associated with surviving and reproducing in the harsh ancestral environment. Displays of narcissism would have signalled strength, status, dominance, healthy genes and sexual power – exactly the same qualities the Rolex or Lexus buyer is now seeking to signal. Our narcissismDRD was the motivating force long ago and it is still very much in evidence today. If we  market to it effectively at an unconscious level, we can raise state narcissism and trigger a sale.

To see this in action, just look at any television commercial for a luxury car. Narcissistic consumers have, among other things, two very prominent behavioural characteristics; they like to display goods publicly, but consume them in private for their own personal gratification. Luxury car commercials tap into the unconscious roots of these characteristics beautifully, skilfully juxtaposing images of driving away from expensive night clubs and restaurants, turning heads in the process, with scenes of open roads, conquering the elements and of the lone driver enjoying exquisite taste in music. All of these cliches are, in fact, unconscious appeals to the narcissismDRD, raising state narcissism and increasing the likelihood of purchase. It is a very powerful effect and even words can stimulate it. In one study, Emanuel de Bellis and his colleagues found that even changing the caption on an Audi A6 advertisement from “You belong.” to “You impress.” led to a dramatic increase in the quantity and value of the optional extras car buyers purchased.

So, if you want to sell high-status products that appeal to the narcissist within us, you need to make sure that your marketing messages stimulate the narcissismDRD. It is a technique that can be applied to a whole range of consumer products, from the latest iPhone to that little black Chanel dress.