Sunday, July 15, 2012

Visible reminders to repurchase.

Here is a rare Idea of the Day that is solidly housed in the low tech world.  A powerful technique to increase sales to existing customers is to make sure that when they use up the first one (of whatever item  it is you’re selling), they buy another one.  This has three major benefits.

  • If they don’t buy yours right away, they have time to consider buying the competition
  • If they don’t buy yours right away, they might realize they don’t need it at all.
  • The more time that elapses between sales, the fewer opportunities you have to sell over the long term
So it is to your company’s advantage to have a salient signal of some kind when the customer is about to use up the current item to remind them to obtain a replacement.  Autoreplenish is easy when we are talking about monthly subscriptions, prescriptions that are taken on a consistent basis, or electronic products that can signal directly to the company through the Internet that they are about to run out.

But what about all the millions of physical products?  The state of the art in ubiquitous computing hasn’t quite got to the point that when your milk is about to run out (or spoil), it sends a message to the store to send a new one. For now, we need lower tech solutions.  But if you put a date on the package, that is not very salient.  And that doesn’t work for when products are about to run out and the package doesn’t make it as obvious. 

Here are a few good ones that Bri Williams at People Patterns recently blogged about and then a few others that I have seen around that seem clever. 

  • When you get close to the bottom of a box of tissues, you can kind of tell that it is getting low, but it is hard to tell exactly.  And for the square ones that fluff out the next tissue from the top  you have even less idea.  What if the last 10 tissues are a slightly different color?   In fact the last 10 could get progressively darker (or lighter depending on the starting color).  Bri also suggests they get progressively scratchy, but I have had enough runny noses to be firmly against that idea.  You could do something similar to this for anything that comes in rolls.  Toilet paper, tin foil, cling wrap – all of these could change color, pattern, or something when you get towards the end.
  • A related problem is that when you are using the product you know you are getting near the end, but then when you are in the store (or even when you are near your shopping list) you forget.  So what if you put a tag on the product that the customer could pull off when they were about to run out.  For the tissue box the tag could be hidden inside the box ten tissues from the bottom.  Or rolled into the cling wrap 10 feet from the end of the roll.  They you put the tag in your pocket and it is there when you need it.  Similar to this is a wine bottle that has a tag on the label so if you want to remember a great wine you have at a party or in a restaurant you don’t need to bring the whole bottle home.   For this last one you could take a photo with your phone, but that also might not come to mind when you are shopping.
Some other ideas. 

  • How about making the product change color as it ages?  This would serve as a reminder for products that don't get used up, but rather wear out or lose their hygiene after a certain amount of time, but where this is not obvious.  I have seen a toothbrush that does this by having some blue coloring on the bristles that disappears as the brush is used and when it is gone it is time to get a new toothbrush.  Where else can we use this idea?  Your pillow?  I have no idea how old mine is or if it needs replacing.  Firmness is fine, but hygiene?  Not a clue.  Sponges?  Water bottle?  All of them could be designed to change color as they get near their unhygienic state.  I have seen a version of this proposed for produce and raw meat.  As it gets near the spoilage date, something on the label changes color.  Or if the temperature gets too high for safety, it also has some kind of salient signal. 
  • How about a mechanical signal?  When you get to the end of your lip balm, there is a little hole in the center that is made by the shaft that rolls it up or down.  I am not sure if this was intentionally used as a signal that the tube is running out, but it works.  What else comes in a tube?  Could we do this with a roll on condiment container?  This would be a cool dispenser for peanut butter for many reasons.  You spin the wheel on the bottom and up comes an easily measured, easily removed serving of peanut butter.  And there would be none wasted at the end.  No more trying to get those last few bits from the bottom of the jar. 

Motivated Reasoning works even for unlikely events.

I heard an interview of Dan Ariely on BBC Business that covered one of my favorite behavioral science topics – motivated reasoning.  His point in this interview was that if something is clearly 100% likely (i.e. true), then we have a tough time convincing ourselves through motivated reasoning. But if it is even 99% likely (i.e. probably true), we can hope for the 1%.  We can even convince ourselves that the 1% WILL happen.  That it IS true.  

For example, why do we still think the free market always accurately prices the value of assets, despite the fact that we get booms and busts all the time (dotcom, real estate, banks . . .)?  Even though we have a ton of evidence against it, we cling to the hope that it is “different this time” because we really really want it to be.  This is classic motivated reasoning.  All we need is a 1% chance that something is true and we can convince ourselves.  The slot machine will hit three cherries today.  My favorite basketball team will come back from 15 points down with one minute to go.  My abusive spouse will come to his/her senses.  I can stop drinking any time I want. 

Ariely made an analogy that I thought was hysterical (definitely better than the ones I listed above).   Imagine you are at a public pool and there are a bunch of kids swimming.  What is the chance that none of them has peed in the pool in the past few hours?  NONE of them? Probably close to zero.  But we can cling to that 1% because we really want to use the pool.  It is HOT out here and the refreshing water would be great.  

But we wouldn’t go in to the pool if the chance was 100%.  Think about if you saw one of the kids standing on the edge of the pool and taking a leak right into it.  Would you go in for the rest of the day?  Just the thought of that could keep you out for a week.  Deep down, you know that this going on every day in a less obvious way.  But still we cling to the 1%.  This is what we are doing with free markets, politics, food safety, climate change, and on and on.  If there is even a small chance that the good outcome will come true, we use our motivated reasoning to convince ourselves that it will.