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The right stuff

If you want to persuade people to buy more, try selling better goods
Has Western society hit ‘peak junk’?
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

At Next, for £10, you can buy a yellow-framed rectangle of grey board on which have been glued a dozen or so blobs of white cotton wool to loosely – very loosely – resemble two sheep. Above them is the caption “Ewe are loved”.

You probably won’t find yourself rushing down to Next to buy one and neither, it seems, are too many others, as the retailer’s knick-knacks, cushions, scented candles, sofas, copycat check shirts and unremarkable slacks, shorts and tops are increasingly shunned by Britain’s shoppers.

In his commentary on the latest financial results, Next chief executive Lord Wolfson explained the 5.5% drop in pre-tax profit as the result of a behavioural shift among consumers: they are spending less on “things” and more on experiences, like eating out. This has echoes of Ikea sustainability chief Steve Howard declaring recently that we in the West have hit “peak stuff”. While people will splash out to have a good time, it’s getting harder, the argument runs, to persuade them to buy more goods.

Well, I’m not so sure I buy that. For starters, alarm bells always ring when fashionable social analysis contravenes what we know about human nature. And we know that people like possessions – driven to consume more than just what they need by a range of cultural and psychological imperatives.

Bourdieu showed how objects are used to distinguish one group’s way of life from another. Baudrillard explored the link between purchases and the satisfaction derived from the “ideas, signs and symbols” they confer. Thompson coined the memorable phrase “project of self” and showed how people use possessions to underpin their sense of personal identity. Or you could just try empirical observation and look at what the rich do when the brakes of affordability are off: they buy stuff.

If consumers aren’t consuming Wolfson’s ewes, and the other bits and pieces hanging hopefully about his stores to bolster slumping fashion receipts, it’s perhaps because society has hit “peak junk”.

But let’s, for a moment, take his analysis at face value, since it sets up a simple, but pivotal, marketing principle. If the pie is getting smaller, and you are charged with maintaining or increasing revenue, there is really only one strategy: take a bigger piece of the pie.

And how do you do that? Well, one way is to make and sell better stuff. In a different category, another British brand reporting annual figures last month showed the power of that approach. Home appliances group Dyson reported a stunning 45% leap in turnover and a 41% rise in profits, as it capitalised on the popularity of its latest breakthrough design: the first supersonic hairdryer (pictured), which became a UK bestseller within a month of its launch.

Closer to home, from Wolfson’s point of view, high-flying retailer Tiger shows how to bring quality and wit to everyday homeware and accessories – where the smile is part of the working design, sassy and original, like its quirkily practical toothbrush holder that resembles a pot of grass. A lot more engaging than a dodgy pun – and you get change from a fiver.

Tiger feels more like an experience too – a place where shopping is riotous serendipity. If experiential forces are driving modern consumption practice, as Wolfson attests, then why do Next stores feel so bland as to be almost embalmed? The derivative designs, cautious layout and lack of surprise make it one of the most expected, middle-of-the-road environments on the high street.

There is another telltale sign that the brand is off the pace and not seeing things through the customer’s eyes: it doesn’t do contactless payment. This may not be a deal-breaker on a low-traffic Tuesday but, on a busy weekend, when those few extra seconds per customer add to the length of the queues, it’s easy to see it dampening impulse purchase. And it’s certainly a drain on the staff, who can find themselves explaining the policy “30 times a day”.

People like stuff – which is why the environmental and ethical movements to cajole them to consume less have met with such little success (see panel). But they are not indiscriminate and will not wait in line for what is unoriginal, unremarkable or overpriced.

So where does that leave Next? Despite Wolfson’s foreboding for the future, the formula for the retailer’s resurgence may prove to be relatively simple: be less derivative, invest in original design and make the stores a more exciting, more convenient place to shop. In other words, behave a lot less like a sheep and show consumers a bit more love.


Voluntary Simplicity
A loosely linked movement that pinpoints the 1980s as the decade when Western culture went astray indulging in frivolous consumption, wasting precious time and resource. The idea is that we can escape the cycle of consumption and live simpler, more fulfilling lives. Ironically, many of the proponents of the lifestyle have published books that have been so well “consumed”, they’ve gone on to become bestsellers.

The Freecycle Network
Launched in 2003, this global nonprofit organisation comprises some 5,000 groups with more than nine million members. The movement focuses on people giving and getting stuff for free in their local area, with the aim of reducing waste. It currently claims to be keeping 1,000 tons of “stuff” out of landfill every day.

Billed as an international day of protest against consumerism, BND is held on the Friday after US Thanksgiving – to coincide with Black Friday. It was first held in Canada but now embraces the UK, Japan, Germany and France. Activities include communal credit-card cut-ups and “zombie walks”, where participant “zombies” wander around shopping districts with a blank stare.