One of the biggest flashes of insight I had about the grocery was the realization that it could be just like the jewelry store.
I was walking through a grocery store with a woman as she shopped. We weren't even calling this a "shop-along" yet. She put something in her cart. I remember it being a jar of mustard. I looked at her, and she knew what I was thinking. "This is a little present for myself. No one else in the house really likes it." She paused for a moment. "I really like getting presents. You can't buy a new pair of earrings every day, after all."
Note that she hadn't purchased some rich chocolate or an indulgent pastry. Mustard was special to her. But, the experience even transcended the mustard itself. Looking for presents made the entire trip to the grocery store much more enjoyable. Every week was a little Christmas.
It was a revelation. Up until then, I had spent a good deal of time exploring consumer needs and the power of products to fulfill those needs. To be sure, one of those needs might be the desire for a particular hedonistic experience. But, the need was still "rational," and I was looking at how the product's attributes delivered that experience. It was a closed system -- consumer needs and product attributes, each set mapping on the other. And, it was a system marketers seemed to accept, judging by the questions we agreed were important.
In other words, we assumed that the product or service delivered the benefits. The woman in the grocery store taught me that was not the case.
- When consumers describe the benefits of a product, they are not always describing the product. They are just as likely to be reacting to some aspect of the environment that the product touches. And, that experience may be idiosyncratic to that particular consumer.
- The shopping experience can endow products with meaning independent of the products themselves. In other words, there really is such a thing as "shopper insights."
- The woman would likely have described the mustard as "special" or "a treat." But, these were not really attributes of the mustard. They were the product of her being the only one in the household who liked the mustard. Meaning and value are the result of context; rarely are they intrinsic.
The ultimate lesson is that a product does not exist in a vacuum. Its value and meaning to a consumer cannot be separated from the desire to have it or the act of shopping for it.