Give Shoppers What They Don't Know They Want

Henry Ford is often quoted as saying: “If I’d asked people what they want, they would’ve said a faster horse.” While the quote may be apocryphal, it’s nevertheless a true statement. Steve Jobs used this perspective liberally -- his genius was in his ability to understand what people wanted but didn’t know to ask for.

Ask shoppers what they want and it’s the same thing. Supermarkets and the retail industry conduct multiple surveys every year in an effort to understand more clearly what shoppers want. The desire for low prices sometimes makes the top 10, and sometimes it doesn’t. But clean stores, fresh food, better service and friendly employees are all consistently at the top of the list.

To be clear, these are all cost-of-entry attributes. None are differentiating, except in the case of its absence. If Apple had taken the same approach, we’d likely all be carrying around small, portable CD players with high-density discs. Asking people what they want will only get you a vision of today’s world, with fewer errors and a lower price.



Truly breakthrough ideas aren’t found in the results of a survey. They are the outcome of a deep understanding of the target market -- in this case shoppers -- and a clear view of trends in general.

Lately the trend has been for retailers to start putting a little more experience into the shopping experience. The days of “price only” are long gone. But wholesale change for the sake of change isn’t the right path either. Ron Johnson and JCPenney (JCP) are proof that change alone isn’t enough; it has to be something shoppers actually want and find beneficial, and will come back for. It goes back to that first rule of how to offer shoppers the things they don’t know they really want -- by having a deep understanding of what motivates shoppers, and why they do the things they do.

UK-based Tesco learned that lesson the hard way as well with its Fresh & Easy stores in the U.S. After six years and a couple of billion dollars, shoppers just didn’t get it. It’s not that Tesco didn’t try; many millions were spent on research to understand American shoppers. Research is necessary, but so is a willingness to really understand what the research is telling you, and an ability to adjust even when the hypothesis turns out to be wrong.

The lesson here is to make sure that if you’re going to offer customers something they didn’t ask for, it really needs to be something they want. Going back to Apple, when the iPad was first introduced it was greeted with much derision and ridicule. But over the past couple of years it has changed how we think about computers, mobile and even the interface. Tablets are now de rigeur in business as well as academia, desktops are dinosaurs, and even the venerable laptop computer appears to be headed for obsolescence. Not only did no one ask for an iPad, the first time most people saw one they didn’t get it. But soon enough, they did.

How do we translate this to the world of retail marketing? Hard work, open minds, a willingness to take a chance and lose, and the ability to tweak on the fly. Watch how shoppers are shopping, how they move through the store, where they go first, where they go last. Examine the data, learn what they buy and what else they buy with those products. Note when they shop, and when they don’t. Watch, learn and look at the big picture.

Finally, there is a history of copying success in retail. But success is rarely a repeatable commodity. What works in one channel or location might be a total flop elsewhere. JCP will never be Apple, but it could be JCP. Someone just needs to find out what that is and offer it up.


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