Can you really tell shoppers what to buy?

An interesting piece in the Weekend Wall Street Journal this Saturday prompts a question regarding how shoppers are engaged to buy a product. The article talks about high-end boutiques and retailers in New York City calling or emailing consumers to tell them which expensive items their loved ones would like or might be interested in. It’s part of a growing trend by these retailers, both on and off-line, to increase their holiday retail sales…and for some consumers it’s a god-send, yet for others it’s an unwanted intrusion.

While the article depicts a fairly “narrow” circumstance, it does point to the opportunity to engage consumers differently. The idea of reaching out to consumers to guide their purchases is not new – we’ve all received Catalina coupons in grocery stores that offer an incentive to buy a like (or competitive) product based on our purchase the clerk just scanned, and it’s hard to avoid Amazon’s “If you like this, you might also like this” approach to suggestive selling (which, by the way, really works). Starbucks this past year began leveraging Apple’s iPhone and the iTunes music service – shoppers walk into a cafe to buy a latte, hear music in the store, and are automatically contacted via WiFi on their iPhone with a message “If you like this song, please hit ‘purchase’ ” and the song is downloaded to their phone.

There are new technologies coming that will further enhance these opportunities to reach out to consumers and “help” their shopping. The advanced mobile phones from Europe and Asia that store credit card data on handsets and read RFID tags are coming to the U.S.

And the ability to scan UPC codes at shelf with a mobile handset and automatically receive product information and, more importantly, consumer reviews to help select (or worse de-select) a particular product at the exact moment of purchase decision is right around the corner. The downside is that consumers can also then determine where to go to find the best price for that product, which might not be in that particular store. But rather than feel defensive, brands should embrace that “moment of choice” for the shopper to proactively engage the potential buyer with information (and better yet an experience) that helps them close the sale right then and there. And ideally sets up a repeat engagement with that same buyer the next time they’re in the market for the product.

Brands need to think about a broader range of influences on their shoppers. The myriad of communication vehicles traditionally deployed to reach consumers will continue to be important. But it’s the combination of those elements with new, different contact points that will create the newest, best ways to influence purchase behavior. As shopper behavior shifts, so the need for brand behavior to change increases, and finding ways to effectively reach out and “suggest” a specific purchase is something to add to the communication arsenal. While right for some brands, it is appropriate behavior for all?

Contributed by Marc Ducnuigeen