OPINION11 August 2011

Time wasters need not apply


With free time at a premium, consumers are driven by a desire to avoid ‘dead’ time. Too much choice is too time-consuming, they’ll pay extra to claw back a few minutes and woe betide any company that slows them down. Pete Comley assess the ‘My Time’ trend.

One of the main implications of the trend I call ‘My Time’ is the increasing desire to avoid ‘dead’ time. Technology helps here. Christine Rosen, writing in The New Atlantis, talks about people turning into “mavens of multitasking” because of technological gadgets. This is being driven by the perceived need to keep up with the constant and various information streams.

Consumers have essentially adopted ‘multi-media tasking’ (or ‘media stacking’) as a new way of life, but they are actually giving less attention to the tasks that they do.

In response to ever-increasing pressures on time, consumers are seeking greater simplicity. The problem is, in many consumer markets, manufacturers and retailers seem to be offering the opposite.

The belief in the powers of segmentation has resulted in an explosion in the number of product variants. Tesco stocks almost 10 times the number of SKUs they did 30 years previously. This added complexity in purchase decisions is adding further to the stress and time pressures of everyday lives.

In his book the ‘Paradox of Choice: Why more is less’, Barry Schwartz quotes an example where, when confronted with half a dozen different jams in a supermarket, consumers still tend to buy more than when there are over 20 different lines.

He also quotes a similar experiment where people were given a smaller rather than larger range of chocolates to choose from. Those given less choice were more satisfied with the taste of the product they chose. It is Schwartz’s view that the increasing choices of modern society are contributing to raised anxiety levels and are eroding our psychological well-being.

So what strategies can be adopted to work with this trend?

  1. The most obvious one is to simplify offers. In overly complex FMCG markets (e.g. toothpaste), there could be room to just reduce the number of variants. Retailers can simplify and co-ordinate ranges. An alternative approach may be the personal shopper model to help people decide. For online services, simplify the processes – think Swiftcover’s claim to ‘get a life and a car insurance quote in 60 seconds’. Tesco’s shopping app stores favourite items, which potentially makes re-ordering quick and simple, and even allows scanning of finished items as they are thrown in the bin ready for adding to the next shopping list.
  2. Bearing in mind the consumer need to maximise the use of time, brands must avoid being perceived as time wasters at all costs. We have found in our website research over the last few years that users are becoming increasingly intolerant of websites that appear to waste their time and do not anticipate logically their needs. The same applies to general direct marketing that ignores information the company already knows about the person. Getting this wrong can seriously affect brand image (and sales).
  3. For more involved and considered purchases, brands need to consider becoming what trendwatching.com call ‘brand butlers’. In the online world, IKEA has ‘Ask Anna’, an automated online assistant. British Airways has a tool which tells you what low cost airlines would charge for a similar flight but including all the extras like suitcases, seat reservations and meals. More broadly, other companies are pro-actively presenting their customers with potential savings, advice about their choices and ‘helpful’ reminders. Examples of this are mobile phone companies highlighting better tariffs or Amazon suggesting to you what people like you might want to buy. However, care needs to be taken to get the right delivery and tone of voice with ‘butlering’. It is all too easy to get it wrong and come across as patronising.
  4. Some brands are more overtly selling ways to save time. Low cost airlines like EasyJet now offer priority boarding for a £10 fee. You can pay fast-track fees for renewing your passport or even for ‘queue jumping’ at theme parks like Alton Towers.
  5. Another way to reduce complexity is to rent not own. This has already happened in the online music market with services like Spotify. The most obvious example in the UK is the bike rental scheme in London. However, the emerging trend is bigger than these examples, highlighting the ‘ownerless’ society as a key trend for 2011. This idea seems to be taking off in Germany in particular, but there are now also a number of fashion rental sites in the UK such as girlmeetsdress.com.
  6. We have coined the phrase ‘time doubling’ to describe another way in which brands can satisfy the My Time trend. This involves offering hybrid products or services that allow people to do more than one thing at once or in simple packages. The concept is not new (companies have been making foods enhanced with extra health-giving substances for years) but it is likely to become more prominent in the future. For example, many people now broaden their horizons by listening to self-selected audio such as podcasts or books, while driving or doing household chores.

Pete Comley is chairman of Join the Dots, formerly known as Virtual Surveys