Consumers and the last-moment switch

Updated on: Apr 24, 2014
As much as 90 per cent of India’s USD 700 billion retail market is unorganised, made up mostly of neighbourhood kirana stores selling groceries and other sundries.

As much as 90 per cent of India’s USD 700 billion retail market is unorganised, made up mostly of neighbourhood kirana stores selling groceries and other sundries. | Photo Credit: P_V_SIVAKUMAR

Why do shoppers change their minds about brands, just before they buy?

Two years ago, bitten by the cycling-for-health bug, I went shopping for a bicycle, accompanied by my wife. My wife and I did some research online, spoke to friends too, and eventually we decided to buy a BSA geared bicycle, which cost around Rs 5,000. We then proceeded to a BSA Hercules bicycle store called Track & Trail in Bangalore, to buy this bicycle. This was an excellent store, showcasing a wide range of bicycles. Even as we were just about to buy our chosen BSA bicycle, the enthusiastic store manager took us to one corner of the store, and told us about a reputed premium international brand called Schwinn, which had a bicycle on offer at a very special price. The original price of this geared mountain bicycle was around 24,000, but lo and behold, it was available for just ₹16,000 for the next few days. He showed us Schwinn brochures, made us test the bicycle, and we promptly fell in love with it. We bought the Schwinn immediately, discarding our original brand choice, and spending more than thrice our intended budget.

Two days ago, my wife and I went shopping once again, this time to our neighbourhood kirana store. I wanted to buy a tube of Palmolive shaving cream, and I needed it immediately. The store keeper told us he was totally out of stock of Palmolive, but he offered us Old Spice instead. “It has a wonderful original flavour (!), you will like it,” he added for good measure. I bought the tube of Old Spice without a second thought.

These incidents left me thinking about an important consumer phenomenon which appears to be on the increase in India: Shoppers switching brands at the last moment, just before they make a purchase within the store. I have read research studies which indicate that a large proportion of shoppers (as high as 50 per cent in some categories) are open to changing brands at the point of purchase. A recent study indicates that even in a high-value purchase such as a car, 37 per cent of buyers eventually change their decision about the brand they want to buy, compared to their initial plan.

This means that buyers can be influenced by brands even during the last few moments prior to their purchase. How can marketers and retailers leverage this phenomenon and widen their influence at every point within the store? Conversely, how can brands protect their so-called “loyal” consumers from migrating to other competitor offerings at this final frontier? Many consumers now operate with a preferred basket of two or three brands in several product categories. Today, a consumer’s “consideration set” of brands typically includes a few reputed brands, all of which satisfy key functional needs. This is a fundamental factor which leads to switching between these brands at the store. For instance, my consideration set in shaving creams includes Palmolive, Godrej, Gillette and Old Spice. I am therefore open to buying any of these brands – based on availability, price, offers or other factors though Palmolive remains my favourite choice, if all other factors are equal between these four brands. In this emerging consumer reality, the first task in front of marketers is to ensure that their brand enters and stays within this preferred consumer “consideration set”. Particularly for new and challenger brands, this is as important as being the most recalled or preferred brand. And of course, ensuring availability of the brand in every relevant store is even more critical in this reality than it ever was in the past. If a brand is in a consumer’s consideration set, then price certainly appears to be a key driver of brand switching and choice within the store. Better price is always a big draw, and particularly so in today’s inflationary environment. Consumers discover effective price within the store, even as they browse through brands on the shelf. Effective price and value is a net result of factors such as the marked price, consumer freebies that sometimes accompany the product, or additional quantities which may be offered free within the pack. Equally important is how powerfully this price equation is communicated to consumers within the store.

Better features Consumers also switch between brands at stores based on better product features. Some time ago, a friend of mine who wanted to gift his wife a wrist watch switched from his originally chosen brand (Titan Raga) to a significantly higher priced brand (Xylys) at the point of purchase because it offered watches crafted in surgical steel and sapphire crystal, features that his wife loved. This may be a particularly important reason in several consumer durable categories, such as digital cameras, washing machines and mobile telephones – where there are multiple features to understand and choose from, and many of these can only be experienced at the store. In India, the kirana store continues to be king, and most of our FMCG purchases continue to occur at these stores. Unlike in a modern retail format where the consumer can browse through shelves and make her own choice, in the kirana store the shopkeeper’s recommendation is very influential. He takes time to chat with us on which brands are performing well, and which brands are liked by his consumers. He also introduces us to new brands which have recently been launched, and on which he perhaps makes higher margins. If there is a stock-out of our most preferred brand, he inevitably has another brand that he offers us with a strong recommendation. I also have an untested hypothesis that, for Indian households, the neighbourhood kirana shopkeeper enjoys very high levels of spontaneous trust.

New offerings There is a definite segment of consumers who like experimenting with newness – new brands, new designs, new packaging, new colours, new product variants. Members of this consumer group will consider switching brands within the store if they find something new and exciting. Marketers who launch new offerings should, therefore, work towards maximising the possibility of discovery by such consumers – using clutter-breaking point of sale material, prominent displays, and even innovative off-shelf mechanisms.

Quality concerns Consumers certainly tend to switch within store for better quality. The in-store indicators of better quality can vary across product segments. For instance, in respect of food and beverage products, I have seen a large proportion of Indian shoppers check for the date of packing, mentioned on the pack as part of information required by law. Many of them will then abandon their most preferred brand if a “fresh” pack with recent date of packing is not available, and buy an alternative offering for that reason alone.

In-store influencers Today’s shopper is subject to an increasing number of in-store influencers. all of which can persuade her to switch brands in the last few yards to the cash counter. There is the all-important shopkeeper. There are staff within the store, who speak to her knowledgeably about the brands on display. There are friends and colleagues who accompany her on shopping expeditions, a trend which appears to be on the rise. There is the ubiquitous internet-enabled smartphone she carries, which she can use with ease to check data about brands, prices and user reviews instantaneously, even as she halts in front of the shelf. The question before us is, how can marketers and retailers best influence these in-store influencers?

In conclusion, marketers should be aware that a large set of their consumers can potentially switch brands at the last moment for a variety of reasons. The challenge is to recognise increasing in-store promiscuity as an integral aspect of modern consumer behaviour, and then to build appropriate in-store triggers which ensure that the switching is towards your brand, rather than away from it.

The writer is also author of “Tata Log : Eight modern stories from a timeless Institution”. These are his personal views.

He can be reached at

Published on April 24, 2014
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