Retailers: Abandon Outdated Categories!
Imagine a large catalog brand that decides to stock computer wearables like Hermès Apple watches that monitor the wearer’s health (in style) and sell for a few thousand dollars. Where is the best place in the catalog to display these items? In the tech section? Fitness section? Jewelry? All of the above?
The answer depends upon the industry “category” that corresponds to these devices. And it can make a big difference, because decisions like this help to influence how shoppers in turn label these new items. Our research shows that confusion about just what these products do — and what products they might replace — is widespread among consumers. Categories can make or break the products that retailers sell.
If you stop to think about it, just about everything you know belongs to a category. In some cases, your brain has done the heavy lifting of assigning an object a label, but often each of us simply obeys pre-existing structures our culture has taught us. Meanings that we impart to products reflect underlying cultural categories, which correspond to the basic ways we characterize the world. Our culture makes distinctions between different times of the day, such as between leisure and work hours, as well as many other differences, such as between genders, occasions, groups of people, and so on.
And the marketing system conveniently provides us with products that signify these categories. For example, the clothing industry gives us labels to denote certain times and wearing occasions, such as formal, business professional, business casual, resort wear and, even (shudder) Casual Fridays. It differentiates between leisure clothes and work clothes, and it promotes masculine, feminine or unisex styles. It labels itself in other ways to denote price points and suitable age groups, such as Haute Couture, Designer, Ready to Wear, Bridge, or Contemporary.
Problems arise when your customers don’t necessarily use the same categories that you do. For example, many people are abandoning (or at least questioning) the fundamental dichotomy that guides a lot of merchandising: male vs. female. Today, some shoppers no longer buy into the idea of shopping for “menswear” or “womenswear.” And the fashion industry is starting to respond to this preference for androgynous styles that don’t rely upon these well-worn labels. One trend in menswear is the use of both waifish male models and boyish female models to exhibit clothes that traditionally appear in women's wear collections. Gucci, Burberry, and Balenciaga dispensed with gender distinctions when these fashion houses combined their women's wear and menswear fashion shows.
What can retailers do to stay on top of these changes? One simple yet powerful answer is to “live with the natives.” Breach the cage that separates you from your customers. Get out of your office and meet the people who love your brand. Be sure to talk to some who don’t as well. What do they love about your brand? What do they hate? What would they improve? And, perhaps most importantly, what categories do they use when they evaluate the products you sell? Instead of relying on them to learn your language, take the time to understand theirs.
Michael Solomon is a global consumer behavior expert and the author of "The New Chameleons: How to Connect with Consumers Who Defy Categorization," published by Kogan Page.
Michael Solomon is a Global Consumer Behaviour Expert and the author of The New Chameleons: How to Connect with Consumers Who Defy Categorization, published by Kogan Page, priced £14.99.