A tactic that doesn’t wash

The spiralling number of detergents on supermarket shelves is working against manufacturers by making shopping more of a chore. By Virginia Matthews

SBHD: The spiralling number of detergents on supermarket shelves is working against manufacturers by making shopping more of a chore. By Virginia Matthews

It’s wash day and there you are, the hapless consumer, confronted by the detergents shelf from hell.

There’s standard, colour wash, brighter whites and mixed wash, non-biological, extra gentle, wool wash, polycottons, full size, compact, liquid wash, trial size, refill, mega-large and micro, liquid powder, meadow fresh conditioner, two-in-one, own-label, money-off and so on.

For a double honours graduate in washing powders, the choice between these myriad varieties is no doubt simple. But for the rest of us, raised on honest-to-goodness packs of soapflakes – never mind the namby-pamby conditioners – buying detergents is about as straightforward as rewriting the Chinese alphabet.

There is a school of thought that the appalling level of consumer confusion is a deliberate tactic.

The conspiracy theorists say our very bewilderment about which product is best for cashmere or Junior’s football shirts actively encourages us to buy even more of the stuff in an effort to hide our ignorance.

But if there is such a dastardly plot out there, then let me say that it is wholly counter productive. Unless you are the sort of consumer that finds washing powder ads intellectually challenging, or has never heard stories of Persil Power rotting clothes, the sight of more than 100 virtually identical washing products is more likely to give you a lifelong grudge against Procter & Gamble than persuade you to fill a trolley with the stuff.

Mintel’s recent finding that 60 per cent of consumers are confused by the detergents sector is an appalling indictment of manufacturers who launch new products like it’s going out of fashion but fail to delist, in decent time, the slow sellers, the superseded and the also-rans.

Then there are other sectors where the sheer product choice has become an irritant, such as cooking sauces, petfoods, shampoos, deodorants and even toothbrushes.

It’s become accepted marketing wisdom that what consumers both require and demand is a never-ending conveyor belt of innovation – new product development being the lifeblood of consumer marketing, and all that.

It is quite clear that shoppers are just as titillated by invention as retailers and manufacturers. Some 43 per cent of us “like to find new things to try” when we go shopping, says a new report on consumer types soon to be published by Mintel.

But with genuine innovation in such short supply, what we too often get is a remorseless procession of me-toos, slight variations, price-hiked new formats and questionably useful product “advances”.

In a market such as detergents this tends to mean a whole lot of identical but desperately competing products; a terrifying tower of sameness that intimidates rather than illuminates the shopping public.

If that is designed to offer the Holy Grail of “more choice” for the consumer, then I think we want to change our religion. The fact is, an increasing number of shoppers are complaining not so much about the unavailability of products but the fact that there are too many to sift through.

Go to any supermarket and you hear the complaint that, with so many decisions to be made about such trifles as what to use to wash the kitchen floor, feed the dog or polish the silver, shopping is becoming more of a chore than ever. It can be a time-consuming exercise in advanced brand performance awareness, when all we actually want is a reasonable but finite amount of choice.

Diverting though it is to choose a washing powder that does, indeed, digest chocolate stains, most of us would prefer to spend our lives doing something more productive.

To a generation that takes choice for granted and has grown up in the belief that there will always be enough chicken chausseur cook-in sauces to go round, the baffling number of decisions to be made on one shopping trip are becoming a burden.

Mintel head of research Peter Ayton believes that, while retailers themselves demand a continuous flow of innovations, the never-ending supply of new products is a double-edged sword. “Nowadays, with retailers knowing how much they make on practically every square inch of selling space, they are obliged to restrict choice as a matter of course. It is true that they continually clamour for new lines, but they also complain that there is no room for any but the best-selling products.”

So if retailers are forced to pare down the options, shouldn’t manufacturers also be taking a lead in offering quality over quantity?

Ayton says: “There is, in most markets, a continuous process of delisting and withdrawing of redundant products, but it tends, with the exception of something like Persil Power, to happen quietly and perhaps not as fast as some would like.”

Despite this, manufacturers in certain categories continue to launch product after product without first assessing how many new brands the end-users actually need or want.

The trouble is that, where there is fierce competition in a sector the only brands a manufacturer wants to see taken off the shelf are those of its competitor, when as far as the choice-weary consumer is concerned its brands are just as superfluous as any “rival’s”.

It’s an irony of human behaviour that, while we love new products, we also tend to stick to what we know. Some 49 per cent of the Mintel sample said they tended to buy the same things when they went shopping. Only 43 per cent liked to try new lines.

Despite the best efforts of fruit juice marketers to introduce us to mango or pineapple laced with passion fruit, two-thirds of us stick to good old orange.

There is nothing wrong with anticipating future consumer demand, introducing consumers to new tastes and experiences and keeping them ever-stocked with interesting new variations on well-loved product themes. However, swamping them with products just for the sake of it enrages and confuses them.

We all want choice. But when the choice of something as banal as washing powder becomes a chore, somebody should put their launch schedule through the mangle.

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