You Demanding, Fickle and (at Least Somewhat) Uninformed Consumer, You.

June 7, 2021 | Letters
Author: Dr. Nicole Olynk Widmar, Associate Head and Professor, Purdue University Department of Agricultural Economics

We’re now a whole year old here at Consumer Corner; first launched on June 1, 2020 with our Welcome Letter that flatly stated for the first of many times in one form or another, “Consumers…They’re Fickle, They’re Demanding, They’re (Seemingly) Uninformed — They’re You!”

Also on June 1, 2020, I tossed three conversation starters out and incorrectly called them useless:

fickler consumer pondering online purchase with credit card

For example, here are some commonly heard, repeatedly restated and largely useless conversation starters:

1. The consumer doesn’t know what they want.

  • Most of us do not know what we want, especially in the future. We may know what we want now, but we accept that what we want tomorrow may change. Somehow this is okay when we’re the ones buying, yet infuriating when we’re the ones producing.

2. The consumer doesn’t understand our business.

  • And understandable since it isn’t their business; it’s your business.
  • The statement, “The consumer needs to be educated” is the natural follow-up to consumers not understanding our business, which takes this notion to a new level. Nobody wants to be forcibly educated, and forcibly educating others about the product you are trying to sell them is inherently unpalatable (at best) and potentially offensive.

3. The consumer doesn’t know they need this product yet, but they do.

  • Dangerous territory here as many a product has been invented and brought to the market to meet yet-to-be-found demands. While this is often good intentioned, it’s extremely difficult to pull off unless you are the next Steve Jobs. And the fact that we all know who Steve Jobs was suggests that his talents to develop products to be demanded was unique.
  • We can work to understand consumer desires and determine how to better meet these demands; however, understanding consumer needs and seeking to meet them is different than telling them what they need. It’s subtle at first, but makes a world of difference.

I was patently wrong; these are not useless statements. These are problematic statements that deserve attention from us in agricultural and food industries as we reflect on how to communicate transparently while backing up our talk and simultaneously consider that if we seek conversation with another willing participant rather than a soapbox speech, then we best mind our manners and watch our words.

1. The consumer doesn’t know what they want.

June 2021 reflections…What do you want? See, you don’t know either. Knowing what you want is not simple nor easy. A significant portion of our collective issues in decision making are likely rooted in not knowing where we’re trying to go or, simply stated, what we want. It’s still true and still frustrating, but if we seek to meet the demands of the consumer and participate in the marketplace as a supplier of goods or services, then agility as a producer/supplier is key. Actually, studying the data, reading the trends/seeing the path forward and then being agile enough to pivot and meet ever-changing demands are the three keys. Sounds simple, although it is absolutely not simple. But you have to perpetually try…

2. The consumer doesn’t understand our business.

June 2021 reflections…Still definitely not anyone else’s job to understand your business. None of us understand every market and every industry; certainly there are industries, processes and businesses that you do not understand. Being ignorant does not mean that forcible education is warranted, nor does it work. Again, “forcibly educating others about the product you are trying to sell them is inherently unpalatable (at best) and potentially offensive.” Forcible education may be seemingly well-intentioned. but, “if you are serious about engaging in conversations (and not just one-sided soapbox speeches of your own making) on potential contentious issues, recognize that words matter, and mind your manners.”

3. The consumer doesn’t know they need this product yet, but they do.

June 2021 reflections…Still really dangerous. As a consumer or customer – being ignorant of the options, ignorant of the processes involved to produce/supply or simply being uninterested in the industry overall does not negate the fact that I am the one doing the picking, choosing or selecting. You likely have no knowledge of how your clothing or boots were made, by whom or where. But, ignorant as you are, you have preferences and you make choices. You can meet demands better than anyone else in the market. You can also seek to anticipate needs or demands and thus seek to meet consumer demands by understanding consumer needs. It’s possible, but extremely difficult. It’s also subtly, but importantly, still different than telling someone else what is good for them or what they need. 

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