The Consumer Isn’t a Moron

Treasure Hunt: Inside the Mind of the New Consumer
Michael J. Silverstein

When I started this experiment my intention was to give equal weight to things I spend my time on (and so might know something about). I should’ve  known better.

The reality is that I spend very little time reading about marketing even though it’s how I make my living. There are a lot of reasons for that and maybe, someday, we’ll go into them. Today, though, we are going to talk about marketing and my great love, retail.

Michael J. Siverstein, is a consultant with BCG and was co-author of a book called Trading Up. Neil Fiske, the co-author of that work, went on to become the CEO of Bath & Bodyworks, a division of Limited Brands. Both books look at relatively recent changes in how people spend their money although both were penned before the Great Recession, so if anything really has changed it isn’t reflected here.

In the agency business, we call that last bit establishing one’s credentials. I raise the agency issue for a reason and it’s not, as some might expect, as an explanation for my pseudo-ADD or my (believe it or not) muted arrogance. Agencies and consultancies share some key traits. They’re both ideas-driven businesses. They both, allegedly, rest on foundations of strong relationships. And they’re both hired by companies to do things they can’t get done for themselves.

Is it any worry, then, that there’s mutual suspicion and envy? I suspect the consultancies spend less time worrying about agencies. But I assure you, I am not the only agency person to ever spend a late night  cursing the consultancy that just blew up weeks or months of hard work.

But then there are the times you sit back in wonderment at the serious well-crafted work done by  consultants and eat your humble pie.  This is one of those times.

That’s because Silverstein is the real deal–a thinker, who has conducted primary research. Someone who is seeking to understand what’s really going on and fit it into a framework that allows you to subject the data to scrutiny. Yes, there is some packaging going on but far less than you find in other business books. Instead you get a series of global vignettes, in-depth portraits of families and individuals with a focus on how they spend their money.

Nearly every individual we meet is meant to illustrate a type or segment; you can practically see the nifty, PRIZM-like names ranked on a PowerPoint slide. Each has their spending compared with an overall average for their segment of the population. And the illustrative examples encompass Europe and Japan.  I had some concerns that the non-US examples were a stretch, meant to incorporate the must-have global perspective.

In this case, though, I’ll lay my cynicism aside for just a minute. I think Silverstein is illustrating that the behaviors he’s focusing on are universal–or at least prevalent in consumer societies. True, it does let him showcase retailers such as Aldi, and that serves the global purpose, but I think he is trying to say the behavior he showcases is widespread enough for business people to ignore at their own risk.

In trying, and largely succeeding, at describing an international trend,  Silverstein almost engages in Social Science with the emphasis on Science. At at time when grounded theory (“rank empiricism” a former colleague once shouted) holds too much sway for my liking this is a pretty strong attempt to apply method and extract principles. That’s a pretty good description of what social science ought to be.

Retailers should read this book if they haven’t. Anyone working with retailers–the companies that manufacture the wares or even their suppliers–do themselves a disservice by ignoring it.

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