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Companies that have profited for years by selling mid-priced products to middle-class consumers suddenly find themselves facing “death in the middle.” Companies that succeed in this bifurcated market are those who understand the attitudes, behaviors and values of middle-market consumers who are driving this metamorphosis.
For today’s consumers, shopping has become a treasure hunt - a constant search through the world’s vast and fluid store of goods and services to find the perfect value every time. Such consumers trade up in some categories, trade down in most, and mix upscale with downscale products to create a customized lifestyle.
The Dollar Store
Retailers who have found a treasure hunting format that combines hard discounts with a shopping experience familiar to Americans include the “dollar stores” like Family Dollar, Dollar General and Dollar Tree. In 2004, 66% of households report having shopped at a dollar store, and higher-income households are the fastest-growing segment of customers. The success of Dollar General and of the dollar store category in general, is having a major effect on the trillion-dollar trading down market.
The Hotel Industry: Moving in Both Directions
When hotels experienced a drop in business after 9/11, a truth about the industry was revealed - despite the glamour of high-end hotels and destinations, riches are also found at the bottom of the market. Although some hotel companies abandoned expansion or improvement plans or unloaded properties after 2001, others followed a trading-up or trading-down strategy, adding rooms and building brands that would appeal to specific segments of the market.
All hotel owners are looking for ways to differentiate and respond to the bifurcation of the market. The worst place to be is in the middle, where average returns are below the cost of capital. New capacity coming on in the mid-price segment is likely to earn a negative internal rate of return. At the high end, a bottle royale is developing. There are sure to be casualties, especially among the small chains not sharply focused on either the business or leisure traveler. The best place to be is at the bottom of the market.
EBay: The World’s Biggest Treasure Hunt
The excitement of going on the prowl is also what’s behind every yard sale and flea market, including the biggest and most extravagantly profitable embodiment of the concept, eBay.
After just seven years of operation, eBay had created a market value of $42 billion, which is greater than the entire value of the department-store industry of the United States, which has been operating for a century. What eBay offers is an online community that brings 336,000 registered stores worldwide, many small or geographically isolated, into one global marketplace.
The majority of items sold on eBay are inexpensive. Excluding autos and real estate, we estimate the average eBay selling price is $36, so the population for buyers represents all income levels. Most users come from middle income households who shop there for treasure.
Bath & Body Works
The ability to understand value factors like fear or hope that cannot be quantified or plugged into a spreadsheet is driving the success of Neil Fiske, CEO of Bath & Body Works. (BBW) For over a decade, BBW has been successful selling mid-price body and personal-care products for women.
BBW is positioned as a masstige (mass market/prestige) brand, based on products that are a step above the drug store and a step below the department store. For millions of women, BBW products fit neatly into their personal value calculus, delivering a combination of wholesomeness, effectiveness, and personal indulgence at a price high enough to be exciting, but not so high as to be unaffordable, even on a middle-class income.
Retailers Who Can Also Get Left in the Dust
As Wal-Mart and other winners have led a retailing revolution - achieving 20 to 40 percent annual growth and shareholder return two to four times the market average - the traditional grocery chain has lost 30 share points and the traditional department store as many as 50 share points. Zayre, Ames, Bradlees, Caldor and Venture Stores, have all been left in the dust.
The conventional grocery industry has been most transformed. Wal-Mart is responsible for much of this shift. Their super center delivers higher store traffic, drives merchandise sales, and increases per-customer visits. When you earn gross margin 50 percent higher per square foot than competitors, that can translate into four times the profits per store.
Avoiding the Seemingly Unavoidable
The single most important early-warning signal that you may be in danger of getting left behind as a retailer is a drop in share of “primary shop.” When a consumer ranks you as their first choice for purchasing goods in a particular category, you enjoy the bulk of sales and margin that customer has to offer. This is critical because retail is a very leveraged business - space occupancy, staffing, and inventory are essentially fixed costs - and a loss of as little as 10 percent of volume can cut profitability in half.
Taking action means innovating, not just more of the same, or considering acquisitions or increasing your advertising spending. Think about innovation as a series of waves of reinvention and change, each lasting three to five years, and no longer. Copyright © 2007 Soundview Executive Book Summaries
|1||The bifurcating market||1|
|2||The new middle-class consumer||26|
|3||Cheap is good||61|
|4||Spanning the poles||88|
|5||All treasure, all the time||108|
|6||When the calculus shifts||132|
|7||In a pickle||161|
|8||Nickels and dimes||184|
|9||Left in the dust?||208|
One of our first visits was to a sixtyish woman named Lillie, who lived in a mobile home park near Tampa, Florida. She welcomed us in and we perched ourselves on folding chairs while Lillie dropped into a La-Z-Boy recliner. I asked Lillie to tell us a little bit about herself and she launched into the story of her childhood in Mississippi, her first marriage, the birth of her two kids, her hardworking life, her divorce and remarriage.
Just as Lillie was telling us about the sudden death of her second husband, an enormous cockroach emerged from the kitchenette and ambled into the living room. My client and I noticed it at exactly the same moment. We looked at each other, looked at the cockroach, and then looked back at each other, wondering whether we should mention it or pretend we hadn't noticed.
But Lillie spotted the cockroach, too. "Damn!" she growled. She leapt out of the La-Z-Boy, tore open a kitchen cabinet, and pulled out a can of my client's very own brand of bug spray. She closed in for the attack, bent over, aimed the nozzle at the roach, and nailed it. I counted -one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand, four-one-thousand, five-one-thousand—as the roach jerked into a deathly paroxysm and the spray formed a toxic puddle around him.
"Take that, you bastard," Lillie said.
My client and I looked at her with raised eyebrows.
"Roaches!" she said with disgust. "Remind me of my first husband." She placed the rim of the can on the carcass and bisected it with a definitive crunch.
What did we learn from our visits? First, that customers use far more spray than necessary. More important, Lillie demonstrated that even a utilitarian product like bug spray can have deeply emotional, even primal, meaning. Our visit with Lillie became a reference point for the bug spray organization as it created news and improvements for its products.
Over the twenty-five years since that visit with Lillie, I have spent a great deal of time listening to consumers, watching them in action, and gaining insights that can be applied to business strategy. I have seen that consumers will always "trade down" and buy the cheapest product in a category if suppliers fail to deliver a stream of innovation and build loyalty based on product superiority. I have come to understand the constant trade-offs that middle-class consumers make in the purchase of goods, how many buying decisions they face in a day, and how much competition there is for their attention. I have come to appreciate how sophisticated consumers are. They have access to a wealth of product information. They do not tolerate poor quality in a product without complaint and a vow that they will "never again" buy it. I know that household budgets are tight and that they are predominantly controlled by women. That's because women, since going to work in large numbers, are responsible for 100 percent of the growth in household income. Women manage the family budget like an industrial purchasing agent who occasionally turns into a hedonist. The home, although still a family haven, has also become a pressure cooker. This smart, educated middle-class population—highly stressed and faced with tremendous choice—increasingly buys at both ends of the price spectrum, while ignoring the middle.
Middle-class consumers have embarked on a relentless, continuous treasure hunt. The treasure hunt is a real and global phenomenon that presents challenges to both retailers and their suppliers, and has delivered death in the middle to the average, middlemarket producer—companies like Chevrolet and Kraft.
In Trading Up, my co-author Neil Fiske and I explored one aspect of the treasure hunt—how middle-market consumers would distort their spending to buy premium goods that were highly meaningful to them. The book originated, interestingly enough, in a series of conversations we had with young women about their underwear. During the course of that consumer discovery work for Victoria's Secret, Neil and I developed an idea that we called "the ladder of benefits"—an ascending scale of technical, functional, and emotional benefits. A genuine technical difference leads to an advantage in functional performance, which can ultimately result in a positive emotional response, attachment to the product, and brand loyalty. The combination delivers the potential for the company to charge a price premium.
With the ladder of benefits in mind, we worked with the leaders of Victoria's Secret to help create a new line of lingerie called Body by Victoria. It offered technical, functional, and emotional benefits, and Victoria's Secret priced it at a premium to middle-market lingerie. The new line took off and quickly grew into a $500 million business. Its success was evidence that, if you get the ladder of benefits right, consumers will not only pay a premium for your product or service, they will even distort their spending patterns to do so.
At first, we thought this might be an anomaly and applicable only in the fashion industry. But we researched many other categories of consumer goods, including cars, wine, spirits, and home goods, and found that the desire to move up the ladder of benefits was a broad phenomenon. In category after category, up to 20 percent of the market was in goods that sold at a premium of 50 to 200 percent to midprice offerings. We estimated that "trading up" in 2002 accounted for about $300 billion in annual sales in about twenty-three major categories in the United States. Since then, it has grown to over $500 billion in this country and about the same amount in Europe.
In my work with clients and consumers since 2002, it became increasingly obvious that the trading-up phenomenon, although extremely significant, is actually just one element of the bigger and more important story of the treasure hunt: the bifurcation of the consumer goods market into trading-up and trading-down segments, with death in the middle.
Thus, this book deepens the inquiry and broadens the scope of the work begun in Trading Up, with two main purposes. First, it is to help the reader better understand middle-market consumers, who are too often ignored or misinterpreted by businesspeople, the press, and others. Some economists even characterize them as spendthrifts and the culprits behind the U.S. trade deficit. I see middle-class consumers as essentially hardworking and noble people who must deal with an increasing amount of pressure to make choices for their families and themselves. They are generally wise about their spending, although they sometimes carry more debt than they would like to and accumulate more goods than necessary. I hope the stories in this book will bring them more respect and understanding. You'll meet:
I know from close experience the daunting challenges that businesspeople face in today's dynamic, almost vibrating consumer goods markets. I respect those leaders who find a way to create products, brands, and companies that connect with consumers and energize categories and transform markets, because—in the whirl of meeting investor expectations, complying with Sarbanes-Oxley requirements, and motivating the workforce—it is easy to "forget" the consumer and lose touch with the market. I also hope the ideas in this book will help entrepreneurs get rich and, in the process, enrich the lives of "average consumers."
Posted February 16, 2007
Consumer behavior - especially in malls and restaurants - is made up of a complex matrix of facts, opinions and projections. Amid that maze, Michael J. Silverstein and John Butman deliver an interesting, in-depth guide to consumption. The authors clearly define and illustrate the sport of 'treasure hunting,' and then apply that term to an analysis of shoppers' activities in a variety of industries, stores and markets. Shoppers who read this will understand how and why they fill up their carts businesses will understand why shoppers select certain stores and online portals. The book's greatest strengths are the profiles of actual consumers in the U.S. and abroad. The personal stories are fascinating, if sometimes repetitive. We highly recommend this book to consumers, retail executives and restaurant managers. It's a must-read for all.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 10, 2006
Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from bzzagent. Since it isn't applicable to my business, this was more of a personal education read for me. I found the case studies to be interesting and could relate my own personal shopping habits to the theory in this book. I definitely polarize between extreme bargain hunting and carefully thought out splurges, depending on the item. I do neglect the middle market, but I wasn't consciously aware of it until I read this book. I also feel like I learned some new bargain hunting tips from reading Treasure Hunt - I can't wait to venture into the dollar stores that are all around but I haven't yet explored, for example. I was interested to read some of the stories about various brands who have been thinking about and acting on these theories. I realized that I started shopping at Bath and Body Works only after their recent re-envisioning. I also learned about the 'LG' brand that I've been seeing everywhere over the last six months but hadn't heard of before. I think this is a good book for anyone who makes and sells products and provides services - my friends and I certainly shop this way and there are some useful insights for businesses. It is also an interesting read for people like me who just like peering into the mind of the modern consumer.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 30, 2006
Treasure Hunt does a wonderful job of explaining what many of us have been doing for a long time - hunting for bargain items in certain categories so that we can splurge on items that may be more important or to us in others. As a treasure hunter myself, I relate to the consumers profiled in the book and feel a real sense of connection to them. Treasure Hunt is an easy read that provides intelligent information and insight about what goes on inside the mind of the 'new consumer,' and how it's defining our economy.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 30, 2006
Michael Silverstein explores the phenomenon of 'Treasure Hunting'--basically getting the best 'bang for your buck.' He argues that consumers are much more sophisticated and educated about all their purchases. They may opt to buy socks at Wal-Mart or frozen burritos at Trader Joe's but then they turn around and are able to buy a Mercedes. Silverstein is the preeminent expert on consumer behavior in America and his insights on companies is truly unique. He argues that companies need to avoid the slump in the middle (think Buicks or Ramada Inns) and focus on high end luxury or quality at the minimum price. This book is a must read for every shopper in America (basically everyone!)Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 24, 2006
This is a great book for learning about consumer spending habits and about 'how consumers have bifurcated the marketplace into high-end and low-end.' People trade up to acquire goods and services that are highly important to them, yet bargain hunt for less important items. I received this book as part of a bzzcampaign and was highly excited to read through it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 27, 2006
was fortunate enough to get an advance copy of this great book through the bzzagent program (itself a great program and worth checking out!) and just zipped through it. It was fascinating, and I found it to be very true to my own experience. A must for all marketers!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 15, 2006
If you enjoyed Trading Up, you will enjoy Treasure Hunt, which focuses on consumers' behaviors to split their spending the market between high and low-end, which is leading to the middle market demise. From great stories about individuals who have made the choices, to industry examples of capturing the two ends of the market and surviving out of the middle, anyone who shops with priorities will appreciate the focus of this book. If you are in the industry of trying to capture customers and their business, you will want to read this and gain some insight into how you can impact your business and its future!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 21, 2006
Whether you're looking for marketing information or just an interesting book to read, this is the one. The author summed up my spending habits in this book and the scoop on how large companies are responding to the changing consumer market is fascinating. I highly recommend this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 4, 2010
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