Keep it Simple, Please!
by Wendy Liebmann

As early as the summer of 2001 Americans were beginning to show signs that they wanted to simplify their lives. Even before the tragedies of September 11, 2001, American consumers indicated that they wanted to -- needed to -- transform their frenzied shopping life into a simpler, easier, gentler one. And thus began the challenges that now face the US retailing community.

The first signs were evident in How America Shops®, WSL Strategic Retail's national syndicated study, in August of 2001. American shoppers -- women and men -- said they had cut back on the number of places they shopped each week, from 2.9 per week to 1.9. This was the first decline in six years. After September 11 the number declined further to 1.6. However, the change in the consumers' mindset was already apparent. Before September 11, not only were they shopping at fewer places each week, they were doing more of their shopping in one place where they could get a lot done, such as supercenters, or where they could stock up to save another trip, for example, at warehouse clubs. Convenience ("ease of shopping" in shopper-speak) became increasingly important to shoppers as they began to put the breaks on a six-year shopping binge.

Two years later there is no let-up. When we recently asked 1,000 women and men around the country if they were "actively simplifying their life?" 44% said, "Yes". "Actively" was the operative word.

They were simplifying their life through a variety of measures, evaluating how they choose to spend their time and money. Eighty-percent said they were by “clearing out clutter and things I never use,” 53% were “handling finances and bills” differently, and 42% said they were simplifying their life by changing “the way I shop.” They were also changing their social life (34%), delegating responsibilities to others (27%), and cutting back on newspaper and magazine subscriptions (26%).

Of those who said they were simplifying the way they shop, 67% said they were buying less, 64% said they were making fewer trips to the store, 61% said they were choosing stores where they could do many things at once, 48% were spending less time browsing, 45% were going to fewer stores, and 32% were calling or emailing prescriptions.

It is critical to understand that the rationale behind this drive to simplify is deep-seated, multi-faceted, and increasingly complex. First it was driven by boredom from nothing new to buy. It escalated after September 11 to a focus on what's important in life; what are the essentials; what could be jettisoned. It was further heightened by stock market declines; economic slowdown, job losses, and a general sense of unease about what life would look like tomorrow. Then came the war with Iraq.

It's no wonder that two year's later consumers have even more reason to try to take control of their lives in whatever ways they can. The notion of making life easy (even a little bit easier) in a complicated world is increasingly important for many.

To make things even more challenging, it’s important for retailers to understand that there's more to the shoppers' desire for simplicity than convenience. It is not that they are looking simply to cut back on shopping. Shopping is still a fundamental part of the way Americans express themselves. Even in tough economic times. It is part necessity, part pleasure. Part "what's for dinner tonight" and part discovery. As a result, shoppers still expect a pleasant, rewarding and emotionally satisfying experience -- albeit an easy, simple and edited one. They still want innovation and newness -- but clearly defined and differentiating newness. Not just another twist on the same ol’, same ol’. They still want to be tempted to buy, but they are tougher to reach, and place much more value on their time and money.

By way of evidence of this mindset … two of the most successful consumer magazines today are Time. Inc.'s Real Simple and Condé Nast's Lucky. Real Simple is designed to help readers simplify everything from "what's for dinner tonight" to cleaning the bathroom and editing your wardrobe. Real Simple has fast become the successor to Martha Stewart Living's lifestyle design frenzy for those who chose to actively simplify their lives -- or merely aspire to.

Lucky is all about making fashion easier by presenting it in a catalogue format where everything is lined up in neat rows, with all the details of how and where to purchase. There are "stickies" included in the magazine so readers can quickly identify items they want to buy. And each subscriber issue includes a custom section with hot shopping locations in the subscriber's home state. What could be easier?

So what does all this mean for drug stores? On the one hand it looks like good news. These days, drug stores are all about convenience. There’s one on every corner. You can get in and out of the parking lot easily. The stores are relatively small -- certainly compared to a 125,000 supercenter. Many drug stores have drive-thru pharmacies. You can pick up milk, soda, dog food, or a snack for the kids at the drug store instead of running to the supermarket.

And yet, in spite of all that, the experience is not always easy, and it's not always simple.

Filling a prescription can be as complicated a shopping experience as any that a customer might face. Cases in point: the "Come back in 40 minutes" prescription, and the "We don't have that medication in stock. Come back to tomorrow. Or you could go to one of our other stores." Or the "How many people have to be on line before they open another register?" challenge.

While the physical nature of the format may be easy -- or easier to shop than others, the total drug store shopping experience is often not. Is it any wonder that shoppers are increasingly willing to get their prescriptions filled at that 125,000 square foot supercenter or the warehouse club, or shop somewhere they can just (self)scan their purchases and go?

In many ways, the drug store still presents itself to consumers exactly as it has for two decades – with the exception of drive-thru pharmacies. The pharmacy is still at the back of the store, having a prescription filled is often time consuming (20 minutes is not fast in anyone’s terms), and many categories are increasingly complicated to shop (analgesics and cough and cold, just two examples). The store is still organized from the point of view of the retailer (and manufacturers) – not the way shoppers think about and consider the categories. And checking out is rarely an efficient experience.

With all that said, clearly in an age where consumers are desperately seeking simpler solutions, the drug store could be the answer. Could be … if the industry gets beyond the notion that simplification is only about store size and ease of parking.


Wendy Liebmann is the President of WSL Strategic Retail and Editor of WSL From the Edge. Visit http://www.wslstrategicretail.com for more.

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