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

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Business - Ir­re­sistible,

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

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