Imagine that all potential consumers have internal stopwatches ticking away until their buying decision is finalized. It is, therefore, the key objective of the marketing effort to either slow down that ticking long enough to get the message across or to stop the ticking and close the sale right then and there. The fascinating part of all this is that each consumer's clock is unique -- some decisions take months or years, some days, minutes or even seconds -- and is ticking at a different speed. Adding to the complexity is that for any given consumer and any given buying decision, the size and speed of the stopwatch will change depending on the specific occasion: buying a bottle of wine for a hot date (a risky endeavor) might be a very different process than buying a bottle for a brother-in-law you don't like very much (not very risky; just get it over with).
In fact, the riskiness of the purchase, from the consumer's standpoint, often helps define the consumer's stopwatch. Consider a risky consumer decision -- one you'll have to live with for a long time and that's fraught with many negative consequences, such as the purchase of a very-big-screen HDTV. If you screw this up, you're stuck with it for several years. In this situation, you have a big and slowly ticking stopwatch, because you are spending much time and energy consulting magazines and relatives, checking prices, and comparing brands and stores. This risk aversion tends to drive the way marketers address these consumers: High risk leads to slowly ticking stopwatches, allowing for multiple marketing touch points.
This interplay of risk vs. time -- the shopper's stopwatch -- defines four different shopping behaviors: impatient, recreational, reluctant and painstaking.
1. Impatient shopping
For almost everyone, buying replacement tires is the very definition of an impatient purchase: No one seeks them in advance, but the purchase can't be put off once the need appears. When a mechanic tells a consumer her tires are worn out, he doesn't say, "Drive them for a few weeks while you think about it."
There are few touch points in this impatient process where a manufacturer such as Goodyear can influence a decision; then the consumer's stopwatch starts ticking quickly. And Goodyear has to be certain no consumer is swayed by a salesperson's claim, such as: "I've got something just as good for $15 less from Toyo."
Besides such dealer recommendations, consumers respond most readily to visual cues, such as sidewall images and tread design.
The key moment in the success of the Goodyear Assurance with TripleTred -- Goodyear's most successful product launch -- occurred when buyers were able to see the tire itself: what the company called its "long, sculpted, sensual shapes that draw the customer's attention ... [an] aggressive appearance that helps the dealer explain the tire's benefits and technology to customers." The icon on the tire's sidewall -- a sun, three raindrops and a snowflake -- crisply communicated the tire's appeal.
And it worked. As Andy Traicoff, Goodyear's director-consumer development recalls, "We knew we had a winner the first time a consumer told us, 'It looks like it does what you say it does.'" And the dealers put it more simply: "Assurance sells itself."
2. Recreational shopping
Consumers refer to the typical supermarket shopping experience with troubling words such as "time-consuming," "dread," stupid, "disgust," and even "hate." Many consumers come away from a retail experience feeling defeated and deflated and can't wait to get out of most supermarkets.
Whole Foods Market, however, doesn't try to speed up the consumer's passage through its stores. The brilliance of Whole Foods' strategy is its recognition that some consumers would rather spend one hour roaming the aisles of a delightful supermarket -- one with beautifully displayed produce, samples in every aisle, gourmet food and chocolate-enrobing stations -- than 10 minutes pushing a cart through one that isn't. This amounts to the transformation of a supermarket into theater -- a stupendous slowing of consumers' stopwatches.
How stupendous? Most midsize cities have only one or two Whole Foods but hundreds of traditional supermarkets. So a significant number of Whole Foods shoppers are, quite literally, driving past 50 supermarkets for a once-a-month, uplifting experience at which they happily spend hours.
3. Reluctant shopping
Reluctant shoppers, like the impatient ones, simply can't wait for shopping to end. Reluctant shoppers, however, may not actually start shopping for years after they recognize a need. Shopping for tires may be distasteful, but it is seldom delayed. Bank accounts, however, are seldom acquired under conditions of urgency.
The opportunities to take advantage of reluctant shopping behavior are richest wherever consumers have a continuing relationship with a business, not because they enjoy shopping there but because, having embraced a bank, the costs of leaving it are just too high.
Commerce Bank has been much benchmarked for perfecting a strategy that combines consumer friendliness (grand openings, friendly and welcoming staff, staying open late and on weekends, and traditional advertising) with a fearfully consistent, pleasant and inviting in-branch experience, backed up by the feedback of 200 mystery shoppers per branch per year. Such perfection at the retail level simply makes consumers reluctant to take their accounts elsewhere.
4. Painstaking shopping
Painstaking shoppers differ from reluctant shoppers in the way they measure the downside of a particular consumer choice. Reluctant shopping is characterized by fear of making any decision; painstaking shopping is characterized by fear of making the wrong decision.
Consider cars. For decades, research has shown that buyers frequently leave the dealership feeling they have, indeed, made the wrong decision and that someone else got a better deal. Lexus overcomes this by showing dealers a better way to deliver the highest profitability in the industry. Lexus' dealer qualification, training and recognition process is legendary and assures that painstaking consumers actually get to participate in the selling process. This dominance of the last ticks of the stopwatch enables Lexus to spend half as much per car as most other manufacturers on the earliest ticks in the consumer's stopwatch: brand building. Lexus's commitment to dealer performance outweighs its competitors' reliance on dealer incentives. And Lexus consumers rarely leave feeling they've made the wrong decision.
Marketers have largely solved their problems targeting the right demographic segments. Now they need to focus on consumers' time imperatives -- the continuous altering of their shopping stopwatches. Properly executed market research will identify those stopwatches. And effective marketers will build strategies to leverage the unique characteristics of each target consumer's stopwatch: What works for consumers on impatient days will not work on days they spend two hours browsing at Whole Foods. But if you understand that stopwatch, consumers will be happy to give you their time -- and money.
John Rosen is co-author of 'Stopwatch Marketing: Take Charge of the Time When Your Customer Decides to Buy.' He is an executive director at Marketing Consulting Services. Previously he worked at Coors and Mattel.
AnnaMaria Turano is co-author of 'Stopwatch Marketing' and an executive director at Marketing Consulting Associates. She is also an adjunct professor of marketing at NYU's Stern School of Business.