Share Letter:

You, The Consumer, (Almost Certainly) Don’t Know What You Want

January 23, 2023 | Letters

Author: Nicole Olynk Widmar, Associate Head and Professor, Purdue University, Department of Agricultural Economics

Way, way back in June of 2020 … you remember those days, right? You were wearing the newest in Zoom fashion (otherwise known as the oldest clothes you owned). We even had a Consumer Corner letter inspired by a Twitter discussion (argument?) I had with Dr. Trey Malone, namely One Economist’s Overly Personal Ponderings on 2020 Office Attire and Related Market Questions.

So, apparently I thought burnout was nigh back in August 2020, and I feel like that has since come true for many of us. In fact, I might be on near-burnout cycle two since then. But that’s a different topic for discussion in a future thread …

Now, back to the consumer … our entire purpose on Consumer Corner was motivated by three “repeatedly restated and largely useless conversation starters”:

  • The consumer doesn’t know what they want.
  • The consumer doesn’t understand our business.
  • The consumer doesn’t know they need this product yet, but they do.

I have since admitted I was patently wrong; these are far from useless statements. These are problematic statements that deserve attention 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.

You don’t know either! Knowing what you want is not simple nor easy. Even if you think you know what you want today, we are all aware that we often change our minds once we see the next (newer?) option. If there is one thing we can count on, it is that change is constant. Agility as a producer/supplier is key. It isn’t easy, but you have to perpetually try…

  1. The consumer doesn’t understand our business.

It is your business, after all. None of us understand every market and every industry; most of us understand our own industry, and perhaps a few others (with varying degrees of correctness). Yet, even though we don’t know much, 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.”

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

We keep trying to understand what other people want before they want it, yet we have a hard enough time envisioning what we ourselves want now (or tomorrow). We can certainly keep trying to see trends, get out in front of changes in popular desires, and fulfill novel and evolving demands, but trying to tell people what they want before they know they want it or have a need is…still really dangerous. You can also seek to anticipate wants or needs and thus seek to meet those consumer demands. It’s possible but remains difficult. It’s also subtly, yet importantly, still different than telling someone else what is good for them or what they need. 

We all have ever-evolving tastes and preferences, yet there are times we are interested in being adventurous with new things, and then there are other times when we most certainly are not. You may recall this from a previous conversation about consumers under duress

Lesson #4: If people are coming to you for products, services or solutions under duress, you have been given an implicit trust – treat that with great care. Pardon my language, but “Hell has no fury like a stressed out consumer scorned.” 

Behind today’s economic environment with talks of inflationary pressures alongside news of layoffs and the prospects of general ‘slowdowns’ is stressing households. It may be worth noting as we head into the coming months that we don’t always know what we want as consumers, but, for producers, this makes it all the more important that we work to sustain trust and use care in how we communicate.