As the title implies, there is a war between consumers and creators, and the battles in this war are played out with money. It’s a war I’ve been seeing from both sides of the trenches. I am a consumer, but more than that, I’ve been writing and thinking about consumer behavior from an empowerment perspective for more than a decade. I am also a creator; I’ve turned my thoughts about culture into a website and a business, for which I’ve needed to market myself as any other entrepreneur might for his or her own business.
In both roles, I read quite a bit. I read about the psychology behind the decisions Americans make as consumers, and I read advice from other business owners about selling their products and brands to these same consumers. On the one hand, I want the public to made the best decisions about money management, but I also see inside stories about how consumers are effectively manipulated into making purchasing decisions — and how business owners should want to use these manipulation techniques to their advantage.
For example, a new study to be published in the October edition of the Journal of Consumer Research shows how certain salespeople in upscale stores can increase sales by being rude to the customers. This would confirm something I had heard years ago about shopping for luxury cars. First of all, conscious consumers might want to avoid wasting money on luxury car brands, for which consumers pay a price for a label or for a perceived experience that goes beyond the basic needs of transportation.
Regardless, the hypothesis was that stepping into a dealership, consumers should be filled with a sense of inadequacy, perpetuated by salespeople who simply ignore them. This in turns makes the customer more desperate to be accepted, more willing to prove they belong in some “secret club.” That need to be accepted results in the customers’ determination to prove their worthiness by completing the purchase.
The new study‘s conclusions are along the same lines, though they focus on designer clothing and accessory brands. And this is just a hunch, but putting aside the truth that you can’t judge someone from outward appearances, this may contribute to the observation that some people you see adorning themselves with luxury and designer items may not be the wealthiest individuals for whom spending extra money for luxury equivalents wouldn’t contribute to long-term financial hardship.
This is a battle that the creators are clearly winning. Exclusivity makes anything more desirable, and brands create this appearance of exclusivity through marketing and advertising, hiring salespeople whose outward appearances fit that vision, and by making everyone feel unwelcome. And consumers fall for it all the time.
One of the researchers who conducted this study offers the following advice based on the conclusions: “… if consumers are being treated rudely, it’s best to leave the situation and return later, or avoid the interactions altogether by shopping online.” This advice sounds easy, but it’s difficult advice to follow because it runs contrary to a internal psychological drive for acceptance.
When you start looking at the bigger picture, a different piece of advice emerges. Don’t be part of the consumer class, be a creator. Learn the tricks that companies use to generate revenue and use those tricks for yourself. Learn to manipulate customers, to sell products effectively. And if you’re successful, you’ll be on the winning side of the war.
This isn’t necessarily bad advice. As a creator who creates — and effectively sells — something unique, you are adding something of value into the world. If your creation isn’t valued by someone, you wouldn’t be successful, and even if your product is not overwhelmingly accepted as good, if someone is buying it, it has some kind of value to those customers. Not every consumer will become a creator, though, and while it’s good to encourage as many people as possible to find something they can bring into existence, most people will not be a successful creator in this particular sense.
The corollary is interesting. Even if some consumers will never be creators, creators never stop being consumers. Everyone needs to consume something in order to live, starting with food and water. Many successful creators have been able to navigate the subtle of their class, and are even better consumers because of it. Relate this to the study pertaining to the salesperson attitudes in designer clothing stores. The average consumer used for this study is not the owner of a designer brand in his or her own right. The average consumer in the study is not a business owner and is not someone who has had the benefit of studying consumer behavior.
It’s hard to imagine the owner of Gucci walking into a Louis Vuitton store, encountering a rude salesperson, and subconsciously fighting for his place by making up for the lack of sales pressure, proving his worth by buying a high-priced item. The owner knows these tricks (and likely never deals with the retail sales channel anyway). This individual is winning the war. He or she is in a position of power to work the system.
And being in a position of power, having the leverage to make the best deals, is the only way to win the war in the end.
Consumer war tactic number one: Learn the tricks the creators use. Consumer empowerment is the first step. You won’t be able to always stop yourself from being manipulated because this occurs at a subconscious level, but you will be able to have a better idea of how you are being manipulated when it happens.
Consumer war tactic number two: Don’t assume you are tricking the creators. And here is where we meet the idea of “extreme couponing.” People who spend a lot of time clipping coupons and buying $20 worth of unnecessary products for $0.05 (plus accumulated store points), if they believe they’re beating the retailers at their own games, are just fooling themselves. If the retailer were getting the short end of the deal, they wouldn’t let you through the door.
Retailers want a certain number of customers to believe they are winning, because it keeps people coming through the door, buying more. I’ve written about extreme couponing previously, so I won’t revisit it, but in general it is not a way to save money over the long-term and is not a part of a sound approach to personal money management. Excessive use of cash-back or frequent flyer credit cards falls into the same category.
Consumer war tactic number three: Become a creator. When you learn about the tricks for consumer manipulation, you may be able to build expertise in perpetrating these same techniques against your fellow consumers. I’m not saying creators are inherently fraudulent, but successful business people are keenly aware of what they need to do in order to sell more of their products.
Is there a line of ethics regarding consumer manipulation? Which of these is not ethical?
- When you walk by the food court in the mall, the scent of food permeates through the vents, making customers feel hungrier and more likely to buy something. Nike added scents to its stores and increased sales by 80 percent.
- When you walk into a department store, you may hear music playing that has been shown to increase customers’ desire to buy.
- Customers are more likely to buy certain products when the price point ends in a “9” than when it ends in a “0.”
- A “BUY NOW!” button on a website is placed where it is and is a certain color because testing has shown that visitors are more likely to click there than they would if it were placed elsewhere on the page.
- Late-night infomercials include advertisements for products that people are more likely to buy at night when cognitive function is slower and behavior is more susceptible to suggestion.
- “Before” and “after” photographs help sell products, and most companies that employ this technique use lighting, posing, and PhotoShop to make “before” photos look worse and “after” photos look better.
- Companies can use words that infer ideas without saying anything of substance, and can also claim “number one” status without meaning.
None of these techniques run afoul of consumer protection regulations, but they are clearly designed to trick the customer at the point of sale while allowing the seller to claim, “Nothing I’ve said or done is a lie.” When is it considered acceptable to use subtle psychological tricks to increase sales? When you’re the salesperson or creator. It’s a war consumers cannot win by remaining solely consumers.
Updated June 23, 2016 and originally published May 6, 2014.