The Shopper’s Dilemma

12 06 2010

Fear and guilt are very powerful emotions, and marketers often rely on them to sell products. Bad breath, body odor and smelly feet are certainly unbecoming artifacts, and savvy marketers would do well to prey on our fears of committing a major social faux pas. And raising children is a role laden with myriad responsibilities, so it makes sense to scare the daylights out of people to get them ton buy the right tires for their car.

But what about when emotions are used to try to engineer shopping behavior at the macro level? Is it right to use fear and guilt to try to instill civic duty?

Back in 1979 the US auto industry was tanking (with the rest of the economy following suit). Imports were claiming an increasing share of US auto sales. To try to combat this trend, the United Auto Workers labor union stood behind the “Be American. Buy American” campaign. The message was simple. If you did not buy American-made cars (or anything else), you were being a rotten citizen.

I was driving a Japanese car at the time. I had just purchased it, a shiny new 1979 Toyota Corolla. To further complicate matters, I was off at school in Anderson IN, and lived in an apartment a couple of blocks from the UAW union hall. Anderson suffered from over 20% unemployment; its role as a General Motors town was in question, and thugs were going around at night bashing in the windows of “un-American” cars.

Yeah, I was pretty bent out of shape. I never could see the value in browbeating people into buying certain things. It’s one thing to scare me about bad breath, but it’s quite another to guilt me into buying something I do not want to own.

And never you once mind that, in my humble estimation, being patriotic means being free to choose. And letting you be free to do likewise.

So this spring when the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce and AGN Media launched the “Shop Smart. Shop Local” campaign, I was instantly put off. Once again, fear and guilt were the drivers used to guilt us into spending all of our money locally. Full-page ads in the newspaper preached how we would not even be able to fund our current police department if all Amarillo households exported even 1% of their spendable dollars. Fewer police, less safety. Easy conclusion, right?

The campaign also goes on to beg us all to not spend our dollars at out-of-town websites. And that’s when I lost it because…well, this is what I teach. With one stroke of the brush, all of e-commerce was whitewashed. Tainted. Condemned.

I wasn’t just bent out of shape. I was pissed. It goes against everything I learned in my economics undergrad major. It goes against everything I hold dear as a US citizen. It stands in stark opposition to everything I teach as a Marketing prof.

And that is firms should compete to provide the best value proposition to customers. Furthermore, this value need not necessarily come in the form of the lowest price, for value can also mean convenience, reliability, service, and more. Value is in the eye of the purse holder.

This does not mean that I am against all of our local businesses. Absolutely not! I spend the majority of my money locally, but not because I would feel guilty otherwise. No, it is because I apparently perceive some personal value in doing so. And when I find value elsewhere, then I shop elsewhere. Case closed.

Amarillo is a very special case anyway. While the mayor and everyone else would like to see our sales tax revenues increase, we must acknowledge that on a per household basis, Amarillo already spends more than the per household income.

How’s that again?

Simple. We are a destination shopping town, serving parts of 5 states and a total market area twice that of how many live in Randall and Potter Counties. Plus, we have many thousands of cars passing through I-40 as transient customers.

In other words, we have no problem taking shopping dollars away from other towns. But some folks have a problem if I buy something online or in Dallas. Go figure.

I want to see our economy thrive, but I want it thrive for all of the right reasons. If we provide the best value possible, we will thrive. Fear and guilt, though, are not the right reasons. Bad breath, body odor and smelly socks may be bad, but this campaign just plain stinks.

Dr “I’ll Make Up My Own Mind” Gerlich

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