Time is new currency in quick-fire economy

Think of the product or service you sell and ask yourself how you arrived at its selling price. The chances are there is one factor which hardly figured in your calculations, if at all: how much time your customer had to invest in order to access and realise the value you were offering.

Of course, marketers have long recognised the importance of “convenience”, and concepts such as convenience foods are well established. Potatoes may be cheap in monetary terms, for example, but the time it takes to wash them, peel them, cut them, and cook them makes them time expensive. So, in a world where time is rapidly becoming the most precious commodity, it is perhaps not particularly surprising to discover that, as IRI InfoScan tells us, potato-topped pies were the second fastest growing convenience food last year, with sales up nearly 30 per cent. Likewise, it is not particularly startling to think that, as Taylor Nelson AGB suggests, over half our main meals will soon be accounted for by home delivery, takeaways and ready meals.

But convenience isn’t a big enough word to encompass what’s now going in terms of time. Take the other side of the coin. While the average amount of time spent preparing the main meal has halved over the past twenty years from one hour to 30 minutes, we also have a boom in trendy recipe books by big name TV chefs.

That’s not just a matter of fantasising about the things we’ve stopped doing in real life. It’s part of the same trend. If we are going to spend time cooking, we don’t want to waste it on functional chores. We want it to be a fulfilling leisure experience.

Saving time (convenience), and creating quality time (brand experience) are already much discussed in marketing circles. But there’s a third element of time-based marketing competition which is still neglected. This is time choice: having the freedom to choose when I am going to do something.

We are beginning to see some astonishing changes here. Between 1986 and 1996, for example, the number of phone calls made at 4am grew fourfold. The number of people watching TV between 3am and 5am grew 20 per cent in the four years between 1992 and 1996. And over the past decade, there has been a 50 per cent increase in the number of shopping journeys made between 6pm and 10pm.

These figures, from Future Foundation research sponsored by BT and First Direct, are pointers to what the Future Foundation calls a 24-hour society. Its research, to be presented at a forthcoming conference on the subject, suggests that there is significant public support for extended opening hours in sports facilities, pubs, car servicing, banks, cinemas, department stores, newsagents, clothing stores, pharmacies, public transport, doctors, dentists – and even schools. In addition, nearly three quarters of consumers believe companies should provide customer care over the telephone beyond traditional working hours.

According to the Future Foundation’s Melanie Howard, the 24-hour society is being driven by many different factors. Some we now take for granted, such as the existence of electric lighting. Others are long-term social trends such as the rise of the working woman and the consequent pressure on time. Global telecommunications and phenomena like round-the-clock news broadcasts and bond and equity trading ram home the idea that while we sleep other people are wide awake and active. Deregulation and flexible working are changing working patterns. And the rising number of single person households – about 30 per cent now – also means that a growing proportion of the population are under no pressure to do things like shop or eat at any particular time.

This combination of intensifying time pressure plus time flexibility is breaking down old barriers – between leisure and retail functions, for instance. Among Howard’s suggestions for the future are hairdressing on trains and barber shops in pubs. “How we look at time is changing,” she suggests. It’s no longer enough to offer the right product at the right price. You also have to offer it at the right place at the right time. “There is a growing intolerance of unavailability.” The new time economy is effectively adding a dimension to competition.

One aspect: a new premium on presence. Being there when you are wanted is increasingly vital, whether you are “there” physically or virtually, through some communications channel.

Another aspect: never mind business process re-engineering, what’s really important now is consumer process re-engineering – “how can we help you reconfigure the processes of buying, preparing, and using our brands to minimise chore time, maximise quality time and choice of when?” New retail formats, extended opening hours and home delivery services are all obvious examples of this trend. So is the computer companies’ offer of 24-hour helplines.

Customer process re-engineering challenges the unstated but widespread corporate assumption that as long as you are ‘customer-led’ in what you offer, it is up to you how you organise your delivery. Opening hours are the classic example: “We offer you the choice you want. But you can only shop at the times that suit us.”

This distinction is increasingly artificial and creates a barrier between customer and marketer, argues First Direct commercial director Peter Simpson. Instead, companies have to align their internal operations to their customers’ mode of operating, and not vice versa. “First Direct isn’t important because it is open at 2am, but because it is not closed at 2am,” he comments. It has to be running 24-hours-a-day to be accessible; to give that choice of when.

For many organisations, however, this is a real cultural and psychological challenge because it means accepting that they are no longer their own masters. As Jan Andreae, president of the Dutch retailer Albert Heijn, comments, the idea that consumers’ desires “should not just influence our business decisions, they should direct our business operations” is a radical one. It is, he says, “a frightening concept because it means giving the consumer real control over our business”. That, however, is increasingly what marketing in a time economy is about.

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