Saturday, 23 February 2008

Choices, choices

Mr Eugenides is on good form here, attacking proposals to stop supermarkets from marketing booze "like candy" and thus forcing people "to make a conscious decision to buy". Mr E's got a point - it's ridiculous, on the face of it, to suggest that people are so collectively stupid that they buy booze they don't "really mean" to buy, and can be tricked into becoming alcoholics.

But of course, supermarkets do things the way they do for a reason. So we can't say that fiendish marketing techniques like putting booze near the entrance, or 3 for 2 offers, or great big displays "make people choose to buy" What we can say, however, is that these techniques do "make booze sales go up". It was very recently my job to help beer companies sell more beer and they had two basic retail techniques:

1) Sell it cheaper.
2) Get it in people's faces as they walk round the shop.

It's no surprise that 1) works. The only problem is that this race to the bottom had hit the stage where even major brands were struggling to be profitable (20 cans for £16 was bad enough - when it moved to 30 for £22 margins were membrane thin). So that left 2) - hitting more eyeballs. This devolved into first fighting for space in the beer aisle (both against rival beers and against wines and spirits) and secondly going for "dual-siting" - e.g. out of the beer aisle and next to food, next to the entrance, by the till - basically anywhere else, just so long as shoppers would stumble over it.

This works. And it doesn't just work for booze. Replace the extra stacks of Carling with Andrex, and I guarantee you'll sell more toilet paper. Why? Do people start making the rational, independent decision that they're going to wipe more? Are we unearthing a deep-seated need for cleaner bottoms that people somehow forgot about until a teetering stack of tissue paper rose up in their peripheral vision? Let's hope not.

What's happening, of course, is that the supermarkets aren't neutrally presenting a set of items which might buy and we might not. They're framing the experience so that buying beer seems like the obvious thing to do.
... the term framing refers to an inevitable process of selective influence over the individual's perception...
The more often you make people think about putting beer in their trolley, the more often they'll do it. Supermarkets aren't going to be shy about encouraging people to buy their wares. (And if they do the same thing with fruit and veg, we don't object at all.)

The point isn't that Mr Eugenides is wrong to oppose these proposals to tell supermarkets how they can sell beer. But the fiercely individualistic psychology he proposes, whereby people can't be swayed, influenced or cajoled into making decisions they otherwise wouldn't isn't necessarily the best way to argue the point.

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