The big brands click on to a new way of selling their wares
The giants of digital consumerism are at the forefront of a revolution that has helped satisfy shoppers’ needs for instant gratification, reports Ashley Armstrong
Thanks to a bottomless pit of information on the internet, and endless scrolling on mobile phones, the average person’s attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish. That’s according to Adam Alter’s book published earlier this year, which analysed the “dopamine loop” that starts when we look for something online and the reward we feel when we find it. Like drug addicts, we crave our next hit, accelerating our frantic behaviour online.
The giants of digital consumerism know and understand this need for speed and success all too well. They have been serving up ever faster ways of satisfying the dopamine loop. Technology means we can buy a new outfit at any time of day or night and replenish the fridge with the click of a button. In big cities, minicab offices receive fewer calls as the ease of apps makes waiting for someone to pick up seem a chore.
This rapid shift in behavioural habits is prompting a radical shake-up for some of the world’s largest consumer giants as they look for new ways to make sure that they exploit eight-second attention spans to maximum profit.
“We are now at the stage where we have access to services instantly, stream videos and music and access news instantly, so the next step consumers crave is being able to have the products and goods when they want it,” says Ben Perkins, head of consumer research at Deloitte.
“There is a real change in consumer behaviours and expectations. If you look at the impact Uber has had across the marketplace, and not just the disruption to taxis, it has introduced more customers to an instant on-demand service.
“As this has become normalised, it has helped drive the rise of instant consumerism,” Perkins explains.
Amazon has pumped billions of dollars of investment into trying to be at the forefront of the growing need for instant gratification. In the past year it has trialled a US supermarket that has removed checkout tills; launched a clothes delivery service, and reinvented Argos with “instant pick-up lockers” that offer daily essentials, such as snacks and electronics.
Jeff Bezos’s desire to fulfil his customers’ wishes instantly is best demonstrated by Amazon’s Dash buttons. The Bluetoothenabled devices are programmed specifically to order one branded product and designed to be stuck around the home for maximum convenience.
Toilet roll could be reordered at the touch of a button in the convenience, for instance.
The usefulness of some Dash buttons for other essentials, such as nappies and washing-up liquid, has been a relatively easy case for
Amazon to make.
Others – a Dash button for Mentos soft mints – appear more of marketing novelty. A recent trial also threw up problems where the only option to replace toilet paper was with a bulk pack of 45 rolls.
Yet Dash buttons are one logical conclusion as instant consumerism takes hold.
“Consumers have always demanded convenience, so there has always been a battle to remove friction,” says Kevin Flynn, head of retail at Thoughtworks, a technology consultancy.
“Technology is enabling this to greater degree, and the companies that are winning are those with a really strong command of technology to make customers’ lives easier.”
Companies including Amazon are also trying to remove barriers from shoppers’ search for instant fulfilment with a new breed of voice-interactive assistants. Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google Home are all enabling customers to shop in a new way, without even having to press a button.
Big consumer brands sense dangers, however. Browsing shelves in stores and online offer a crucial opportunity for the likes of Fairy and Persil to work their magic and convince consumers to choose them over their rivals, and possibly pay more. Making things easier for consumers might make things more difficult for consumer goods giants.
“Products and packages carry branding. That’s why Amazon’s Dash, which features a brand’s logo, is a regular reminder of the brand and creates exclusivity,” says Liz Crawford, head of insights at Product Ventures.
“But Amazon’s Alexa does not carry branding, so manufacturers need to find other ways to be remembered in shoppers’ minds in absence of Dash buttons.”
In response to the threat, Dove and Marmite maker Unilever and Pampers maker Procter & Gamble are urgently searching for ways to build direct relationships with consumers.
P&G last year launched Tide Wash Club in the US to strip out what it acknowledges is one of the most boring purchases a customer can make.
“Never think about detergent again,” it claims with its subscription offer to deliver Tide washing capsules to a customer as and when needed.
Others have turned to deal-making in their own search for instant gratification.
Unilever last year paid $1bn (£0.78bn) for the subscription razor seller Dollar Shave Club. Harry’s, a venture capital-backed rival, is currently attempting to conquer British bathrooms with blanket advertising online and on billboards.
The rewards for its backers could be massive. Dollar Shave Club, which has won over its male customer base with the simple “our blades are f------great” tag-line, has grabbed more than half of online razor sales in the US. Jeremy Bassett, Unilever’s start-up boss, said the takeover was a push by the Anglo-dutch conglomerate to “embrace disruption”.
“It’s no surprise that manufacturers want to have a direct to consumer channel as it means they own the consumer relationship, experience, and data, says Mudit Jaju, senior partner at MEC. “If you rely solely on third-party retailers, you are in some sense building your house on someone else’s land,” he added.
Unilever hopes it can apply what it learns from Dollar Shave’s subscription model to its array of other big brands to cut out retailers and deal with the threat of instant consumerism.
Despite dabbling, P&G has so far been more circumspect about the trend. Jon Moeller, its finance boss, has cautioned that direct-to-consumer only accounted for 0.3pc of sales.
“For categories like clothing and electricals there is a clear, tangible benefit to going direct to consumer. But it’s unrealistic a consumer will buy a bottle of shampoo directly from a brand because there is no benefit to going to that brand’s site instead of Amazon or Boots where they can fulfil the rest of their shopping orders,” says Jaju.
“Without a clear consumer benefit, manufacturers will find the direct-toconsumer model challenging,” he added.
Regardless of such doubts, brands are still investing heavily in technology to help them respond to consumer demands faster.
Cosmetics giant Estée Lauder earlier this year launched “chatbot” software on Facebook designed to allow shoppers to swiftly purchase products directly delivered inside an hour, within London.
In this way, Estée Lauder is trying to take back control of how customers buy its products from the department stores’ beauty halls and other third parties. Meanwhile, online fashion retailer Asos has also recently launched a visual search function to make its smartphone app even more useful to its young customer base and strengthen its relationship with its consumers.
The function lets consumers photograph clothing they spot on the street, or in high street stores, and search Asos for something similar.
As well as allowing twentysomething fashionistas to find shoes and dresses that copy the luxury designers they can’t afford, the system speeds up purchasing and so provides the instant gratification shoppers’ brains are seeking.
“The rise of artificial intelligence, fingerprint recognition on smartphones, mobile wallets and contactless payment has removed some of the commerce barriers, while instant deliveries have made it faster and easier to get the services you want,” says Deloitte’s Perkins.
As more companies learn to use technology to tap into our inbuilt need for instant gratification, there is a risk more consumers will not be able to control themselves.
“We are also seeing a rise of unplanned debt, which could be the result of unbudgeted expenditure as people become more carefree about getting their fix immediately,” Perkins warns.
If this continues, our reliance on technology could leave shoppers with empty bank accounts, as well as ravaged attention spans.
Turning the tide: Detergent sits on display in a US supermarket, top; Nike shoes, right; a Harry Winston razor, left; and the Asos website, far left, are all trying to cater for consumers’ instant demands