As a packaging and design consultancy, we spend a lot of time in supermarkets, corner shops, car showrooms and pharmacies. We do this as part of our market research, plotting the creeping barrage of change in the retail environment that is supposedly being driven by changing consumer lifestyles, attitudes and demands.
In the supermarkets of the Seventies, there was a profusion of complex choices laid out with little rationale or engagement. Today, storekeepers have learned valuable lessons from the past and really understand today’s consumer. Or do they?
One category that seems to have been left on the shelf is paint. It’s almost as if consumer developments have passed the retail paint manufacturers and DIY store owners by. Purchasing decorative paint can be a complex procedure, yet go into any DIY store and it becomes apparent that the paint fixture has been laid out according to the rules of the melamine chipboard fixture (choose and buy).
The consumer is faced with thousands of colours, finishes, pack sizes and formulations, with perhaps millions of possible combinations duplicated across two or three major ranges.
So where have the paint manufacturers and retailers gone wrong?
First, consumer lives have changed more rapidly over the past ten years than at any point in history. Time has replaced money as the great scarcity of modern times, to the point where consumers seek simplicity, not complexity, of choice. Anything to make life easier. DIY has also experienced a quantum shift over the past five years. From being a male-dominated, task-oriented chore, home styling is now an active lifestyle choice. It has become a primary leisure activity in a world where leisure time is at a premium.
DIY is being played by new social rules. Women are playing a more active role in the practicality and aesthetics of DIY. It’s about creative self-expression as much as it is about maintenance.
Also, television programmes (for example, Changing Rooms) have fundamentally changed attitudes to DIY. It is increasingly seen as a “quick change” activity where rooms can be transformed over a weekend as part of consumer leisure activity, rather than a concerted once-a-year chore.
Consumers, then, need two things in a DIY retail environment. They want inspiration and guidance couched in emotive and aesthetic terms that they recognise, and they also want their choices to be made quick and easy.
The paint fixture
With paint, especially emulsion, playing a central part in the consumer DIY process, major brand owners (such as Dulux and Crown) have gone to great lengths to help the consumer choose both type and colour. Yet we have watched baffled shoppers spend ten to 15 minutes, shade cards in hand, wandering up and down the aisles.
They leave the fixture, return, and often leave again without making a purchase, even when armed with product literature.
From our research there are a number of problems here. First, the fixtures tend to be huge with several brands present, plus the shop’s own. These brands are represented by vinyl matt and silk emulsion, pure brilliant white and glosses in different sizes. In addition to a wide range of ready-mixed colours there is also on-site mixing, usually provided by the dominant brand. Within interior emulsions the choice of brands, finishes, sizes and colours is mind-boggling. And there is little product guidance: consumers have to work out by observation where each product/brand sector begins and ends.
Second, the isles tend to be long, narrow and tall, creating a canyon effect that makes it near impossible for consumers to stand back and “map” the fixture, as they can in supermarkets. They are forced to view from a steep perspective that prevents them from easily distinguishing between brands and formulations, let alone colour variants. Dump bins and busy gondola ends make visibility worse.
The choice process
Outside the hostile fixture environment, brand identity is relatively straightforward. Crown and Dulux have strong branding mechanisms that not only identify the manufacturer but clearly brand the whole range. These corporate marks are fairly consistently applied and, importantly, work from a distance (if the layout allows consumers to step back and see them).
However, on-pack product definition has been obscured by this branding, and in the search for brand values and market dominance clear product signalling has been lost. Furthermore, product differentiation has not been addressed through other point-of-decision materials.
For instance, buying emulsion paint requires answers to the following four questions:
What finish is required: vinyl matt, soft sheen or silk? And what’s the difference in appearance and usage?
What application is wanted: one-coat, solid or traditional? Which is best for where I want to use it?
What formulation: traditional or flexicover and why?
Which colour: pre-mix or on-site mix? Classics or exclusives? Naturals or natural hints? Do I choose from within one range or can I mix and match?
In product segmentation there seem to be two main factors working against the consumer and, ultimately, the brand: the hostile retail environment and too many unclear choices within the paint offer.
From our perspective, it appears to be that the hierarchy of choice breaks down (broadly) into two areas: the technical and the aesthetic. And it’s the colour-aesthetic choice that is particularly confusing.
Colour choice or colour confusion?
Talking to, and watching, consumers in store, confusion arises from two main issues:
First, the sheer number of colours available, particularly in on-site mixing with small subtleties difficult to visualise from the colour cards and suspicions about the consistency of on-site mixing.
Second, the attempts by brand owners to guide consumers through the colour labyrinth by grouping colours by themes, and thus imposing their own aesthetics on the consumer. This causes contradiction and confusion, as examination of the shade or colour cards will testify.
The way forward
This is not the forum for detailed recommendations. However, some general comments may provide a fresh light on the DIY retail environment in general and on the paints fixture in particular.
DIY retailers should have greater awareness of consumer time pressures and priorities. They need to realise that DIY is both a leisure activity and a vehicle for self-expression. Additionally, they need to view DIY as a lifestyle industry, not simply as a building or home-improvement trade.
They should aim for clarity and simplicity throughout the store through clear signage, rigorous control of proliferating product lines, and aisle layouts similar to supermarkets that allow consumers to see and browse.
Paint manufacturers should return to basics. They must resist the temptation to target everybody through complex layers of product grouping and, instead, cut through to the main drive behind choice (probably colour) which unites all consumer attitudinal types. Forget the research focus groups with their capacity to explore layer upon layer of psychological motivation. Just become more pragmatic, spending more time at the fixture watching and talking to people trying to buy from the ranges.
The paint companies should adopt a communications strategy that allows different parts of the communications mix – the all-important packaging with its myriad of messages, advertising, shade cards, shelf-edging defining the linear limits and colour displays – to concentrate on specific elements of the purchase decision.
Simon Sholl is planning and development director for packaging and design consultancy Siebert Head