Saturday, January 3, 2009

I have a theory...

...on how the Hispanic shopper will save the American shopping experience.

For the last six or seven years I have been attending various conferences on Shopper Marketing and invariably, after waxing poetic for 55 minutes, the speakers would wrap up and say something like "...and let us not forget the Hispanic shopper for she shops differently... She shops with her senses..."

WHAT? She shops differently???...with her senses??? What ethnocentric trips were these guys on? This all sounded a little short-sighted and conveniently academic... in that conveniently-old-fashioned-marketing-trying-to-be-hip-and-provocative kinda way.

When I thought of shopping and markets, my mind would immediately drift off the the memories of my childhood shopping at the Marché Mouffetard in Paris, the images of the Souks of Marrakesh, the spice markets in India, the strange markets in China... The images in my head were endlessly filled with colors; the sense-memory of smells were of fruits, rotisserie chickens and cheese shops; the sounds were of vendors tempting us with a sample tasting of strawberry tart or a fresh cherry; the old ladies skillfully selecting of the perfect tomato by the way it felt in their hands and the way it smelled of green vine...

The market, my friends, IS the REALM OF THE SENSES. It is where we come to awaken and fine-tune the great skills called our senses.

We have been shopping with our senses since the beginning of time.
Our senses are what guide us to and far away from the good or bad foods. It is how we define and determine what we like and don't like. As we have evolved, perfecting our choices via our senses has been the difference between greatness and mediocrity - those who became adept at spotting a certain hue of meat, or the particular scent of the perfect melon become the better cooks.

The reward for being great at choosing the better ingredients is the delight the family takes in eating a delicious meal. Wives and moms thrived on the praise from their families for being adept at knowing which butcher has the better steak, which produce stand has the better vegetables, which baker baked the better bread...
The same extends to all products we purchase - from food to jewelry, to rugs, to clothes... our senses guide not only preference but quality. This ability is not only something we used to learn over our lifetimes but is a coveted skill passed down through the generations (at least in the old world).

But something happened...
Increasing numbers of Americans report that they "hate grocery shopping" (14% of the adult population. But women, ages thirty-five to forty-nine years old, were the most likely group to dislike grocery shopping* moreover 42% percent of consumers were looking for ways to reduce the amount of time spent on grocery shopping.**

The question is WHY?
Why do we now hate grocery shopping so much? How can something that used to be the source of such pride have fallen from grace for almost half of us?**

So here goes the theory...
Until the Second World War, many of us lived in an urban space where we had our community within walking distance. We would walk to the butcher, the baker, the deli, the fruit stand... Each vendor took pride in his/her store and competed with other vendors by trying to seduce shoppers with a better product, a better display, samples, anything that would entice shoppers to buy from them. They knew that appealing to the senses would at least attract passers-by thought the door. Think of the magical power of the scent of freshly baked bread. Not only do we suddenly crave it, but we also begin to imagine the possibilities of a great meal... Up until then, carefully selecting our foods was something we worked at becoming more proficient in.

WWII saw the explosion of efficiency. It was an era when efficiency experts perfected - from an accounting perspective - production rates: more with less and faster. Henri Ford invented the assembly line for cars, Chicago for meatpacking but WWII took it to everything else on a ubiquitous scale. Everything that could be optimized to supply the war effort, was.

So the inevitable happened, the bean counters of the now defunct war effort decided to optimize everything, including the space where their wives, not them, shopped for groceries - how much of something can we ship further, faster and stack higher and deeper per square foot. Well, let's put everything in boxes and under cellophane. And while we are at it, can we freeze it?...and then put it in a box? Can we do it with produce too?
Suddenly, we are not shopping at the local deli and the local produce stand, we are shopping at the modern antiseptic and anonymous marvel called the Supermarket. Here everything is streamlined, it's pretty, clean and homogeneous; the shelves all look the same, in perfect, identical rows. How wonderful is that? It's called progress. And this progress is our left-brain, male gift to our wives, sisters and mothers.

- But... But... How do I smell the tomatoes for the ripest one through the plastic wrap? How can I tell which is the best of something if it's hidden in a box?
- Honey, don't worry about that.... Trust me, this will make your life so much more practical. Trust me, what's IN the box will look exactly like what's ON the box.

Well, the artist formerly knows as the shopper, i.e. mom, could no longer feel, smell, taste, listen, see the actual food they were going to actually purchase, they had to trust the advertising on the box. How convenient for the manufacturer and the retailer. How inconvenient for the actual consumer.

Mom and all the other sensorial shoppers got the short end of the stick for the next... oh... 60 or so years. In some places and retailers it's still going on... Have we learned nothing of human behavior... We crave connection with the world around us. The sad irony is that in the name of progress, we have been removing any and all contact with the food we eat, the products we use, and the people who can advise us on all of them. Think about it, the only contact any shopper has with anyone is at the checkout. And now with the self-checkout, no human interaction at all. Is it any wonder we shop talking to our friends on cell phones...just to feel connected.

Soooo, what does this have to do with our Hispanic shopper?
As the state of marketing denial of all human needs continues to prevail, an underground movement is taking place where retailers (like Walmart) and brands (like P&G) are paying attention to the rapid growth of the Hispanic population (currently 50% of the population growth in the US***) and developing marketing and shopping strategies to cater to them. Because it is lucrative. But these strategies are usually based on communication and just putting Hispanic people in the ads. The best ones are creating a different shopping experience targeting heavy Hispanic communities by offering more colorful and interactive environments where the shopper can touch, smell, taste and generally sample the various items. What they are failing to see is that shopping needs of Hispanics who bring with them habits from quote "poor" and "unsophisticated" tiendas in their old-fashioned countries are actually the shopping habits and needs of all of us.

Well, guess what my friends, the old way is the right way. Let us experience and interact with our food and we will enjoy shopping even more. Case in point, look at the huge success H.E.B. has had with their Central Market format in Austin. The "experiment" of a new sensorial and interactive shopping experience helped a grocery store become the number two tourist destination (1.5 million visitors) in Austin behind the State Capitol... Are you kidding! A grocery store...became an attraction! Yup, they got it right, they encouraged shoppers to interact with the food. I would also venture to add that it is not surprising from a state that has such a large Hispanic/Latino population.

In the last 10 to 15 years, there has been increased "sensualization" of business. This would correlate with the increased power of women in the corporate world. When women sell to women, they sell by helping them feel something. Think of the make-over to sell cosmetics. The senses are what capture the imagination. Again, in the grand scheme of things, nothing new, but to a left-brained, linear, male-dominated culture this is a radical departure from the "way a grocery store has always been." The minute we tap into the power of experiencing via sensual sampling, we begin to seduce on a whole different level. By inference, the power to sell is really about taping into the right brain - the imagination, the creativity, what could be. And the gateway is the senses. Kinda like the Hispanic shopper, she is the gateway to shopping - if we understand how she shops, we can understand how we all shop. This has been a long winded way to say: to create a shopping environment for her, is to create a shopping environment for the rest of us.

So my questions is: in an increasingly digital world, is sensorial shopper engagement more or less important than it has been in the last few million years of shopping?

The truth is, we all have always shopped "differently" than the way we have been expected to shop for the last 60 years. Efficiency is not always effective in creating memorable or pleasurable experiences.

So the world of marketing will be forever indebted to the Hispanic mom. We may not realize it now, but by proxy, she will show the US how to find pleasure in grocery shopping...again.

(*Thomas, Jerry, 2003, "Some Hate Grocery Shopping"
Pastore, Michael, 2000, "Online Grocery Market Treading New E-Commerce Waters," Cyber
***Pew Research Center 2008)