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Article by Mohan Babu


King consumer reigns supreme

American consumers, who have umpteen number of brands to choose from, have devised their own strategies for shopping, writes Mohan Babu

America is perhaps the most consumerist nation in the world. Being consumerist is a double-edged sword. On one hand, Americans who love the latest, greatest products get what they want, but in the process, the choices overwhelm many consumers. In any consumer driven market, the main beneficiaries are the producers and companies that sell the services.

Any marketing manager will tell you that choice is good, and that it helps individuals feel better about the products they are buying, and give a touch of individualism. Of course what they don’t tell is: more choice means more products in the market, which in turn helps the companies producing these products. The fact remains that a mature free market leads to a proliferation of goods and services, leading to the survival of the fittest. However it also leaves a lot of room for second and third rung product that manage to find a niche.

Americans didn’t always have the kind of choices, especially when it comes to consumer goods and products. Even the previous generation had to be content with a few generic brands of most products, the same kind that Jones’s next door were getting. Henry Ford, the legendary founder of the Ford motor company reportedly once said, “Give them any colour (car) as long as they are black”. Needless to say, America has come a long way since Mr Ford’s proclamation sometime in 1906. The choices, when it comes to cars are astounding, almost mind blowing. The same goes for every other consumer product — from cereals to cell phones, TVs to trucks — consumers have the kind of choices, which are unimaginable in many other parts of the world.

Take a walk down any supermarket aisle and choices immediately confront you. Getting a gallon of milk from the dairy section may not be as simple as it sounds, especially since milk comes in over a dozen varieties ranging from zero fat to extra rich (and a few varieties in between). The same goes for yoghurt — that ranges from plain, cultured, flavoured, half fat, zero fat made by different brands, in different packages and sizes.

I remember the first time I went a supermarket to buy some breakfast cereal. I hadn’t gone with any particular brand or category in mind since I was used to ‘Kellogg’s’ back in India. Most supermarkets have a whole isles dedicated to the display of cereals and they carry at least half a dozen brands including national brands like Kellogg’s and Post. Each brand in turn will have a slew of varieties including honey, crunchy, barn, oats etc etc.

How does one go about deciding what the best brand out there is? Tough! Trial and error is perhaps one way to do it — go about sampling one brand at a time and with any luck you will find a brand (or kind) that you may like. However, just as you get comfortable with your brand of cereal, the marketing gods might decide to change the packaging and flavour just a bit, enough to make you want to start the process again. If you thought deciding on a brand of cereals is not the biggest problem in life, you probably are right. But of course, for everything that you want to shop for, you are going to face a similar challenge. Before you know, the choices can become overwhelming.

The issue of choices, when it comes to shopping is exacerbated by the fact that there is no uniformity or even rhyme or reason behind pricing. Almost everyone here lives with the nagging fear that they will end up paying more than Jones or the neighbour-next-door. We are eternally looking for the ‘right deal’ and sales, stocking stuff we don’t even need. Because of the wide array of products and variations being provided by marketers, they have devised clever pricing plans, bundling in discretionary promotions and discounts. The end result? The same box of cereal will not cost the same in two different supermarkets down the road.

The enormity of choices available to us was brought home one recent evening when my friend and I, currently in the market for a used car, decided to brainstorm over a cup of coffee (Starbucks, latte with extra cream and sugar, in case you were wondering). In the back of my mind, I knew that we had come a long way since Mr Ford made his pronouncement over a century ago, but still, the availability of brands, models and makes, with the variations in features, not to mention the colours and prices, did not cease to amaze. I am glad that we had decided to rule out new, ex-showroom cars from our already complicated search algorithm. Of course, we might reconsider our decision, especially in light of the ‘Zero percent interest’ offers being doled out by the big three American automakers.

Most consumers have realised that there is a method in the madness and individuals device their own strategies for shopping — some focus on pricing and others on convenience. There is ample scope for everyone to experiment and come up with their individual strategies. As you may expect, there are a number of magazines, websites, radio and TV shows dedicated to educating and informing consumers. The dotcom, at least the business-to-consumer side of dotcom promised us convenience, trying to be everything to everyone.

Of course as the short history of dotcoms have proven, not all consumers are willing to sit in front of their PC and order groceries and other consumer goods. Going to the mall or supermarket is still a welcome diversion to most of us, even if it means using the grey cells to do some calculative shopping. One thing is certain; it pays to shop, caveat emptor — buyer beware.





About the Author

  • A Bio and profile of the author, Mohan Babu, can be found at his homepage
  • Mohan has authored a book on Offshoring and Outsourcing (Publisher McGraw Hill, India), a link to which can be found here
  • Mohan has also authored an Online book on "Life in the US," available for free download.
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    For FAQ, Trivia and Information on Life in America, visit the Ask-A-Desi section

    ©Mohan Babu: All Rights Reserved 2005

    Mohan Babu is an international consultant trying to find the ‘sweet spot’ where IT meets business. E-mail: mohan He is also the author of a recent book on "Offshoring IT Services"

    All rights are reserved. Mohan Babu ("Author") hereby grants permission to use, copy and distribute this document for any NON-PROFIT purpose, provided that the article is used in its complete, UNMODIFIED form including both the above Copyright notice and this permission notice. Reproducing this article by any means, including (but not limited to) printing, copying existing prints, or publishing by electronic or other means, implies full agreement to the above non-profit-use clause. Exceptions to the above, such as including the article in a compendium to be sold for profit, are permitted only by EXPLICIT PRIOR WRITTEN CONSENT of Mohan Babu. 

    Disclaimer: This document represents the personal opinions of the Author, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Author's employer, nor anyone other than the Author. This Article was originally published in Express Computers


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