Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Change for the Sake of Change - A Bad Idea

There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to "change."  One school says, "If it's not broken, don't fix it;" the other school takes a different view:  "If it's not broke, break it."

While I often welcome change - especially needed change - I tend to be conservative in my views towards those who change something for the sake of change.  Here's why:

Fragile Customer Loyalty:  Customer loyalty is hard-won, fragile and remarkably powerful when it comes to supporting a business or product.  A while back, I did a survey of 3,000 people in Palm Beach County Florida who'd been with the same doctor for more than 11 years.  Of these (the doctors were horrified to learn), a clear majority would change doctors (breaching that loyalty) in order to cut their wait-time by just 15 minutes, or their co-pay by just $25.  Clearly, in this case, the loyalty doctors assumed was theirs (allowing them to keep customers waiting or charging them all the market would bear) was only skin-deep.  If that.

Real Customer Loyalty:  On the other side of the coin, real customer loyalty has people choosing - without thinking about it - the store they'll shop at, the fast-food drive-through they'll patronize, or the product they'll buy.  That's what sellers want - loyalty so deep that customers won't even consider other options before laying down their magic plastic.

That is loyalty worth having.

Yet when companies adopt change for the sake of change, they are destroying the too-fragile link that bonds customer to product or vendor.  That can have ruinous financial implications.

Example One - Smith's Grocery Store (a Kroger company):  I have been shopping at one grocery store for 16 years, for two reasons. First, it is the closest to my home, making it convenient.  However, there is another grocery store (inside Walmart) that's less than a quarter-mile more distant from my home.  Location convenience is not a big issue here.

The second, and most important reason for patronizing this store is simple: After 16 years, I am comfortable in knowing that I can instantly find any product I might want, because I already know where it can be found on the shelves. I don't have to think about it, I don't have to go searching for it.  This means that it takes me about 20-30 minutes to find my weekly $200 worth of food items, check out and be heading back home.

However, within the past month, the store (probably at the behest of "corporate" - in this case, Cincinnati-based Kroger) experienced a store layout make-over - and suddenly, the products I sought out were not where I'd been used to finding them.  It took me more than 20 minutes longer - basically doubling my time in the store - to do the family's weely shopping in the "new" store than in the old.

Frustrating.  But more important, it shattered the bonds of loyalty.  I didn't shop there because I knew the people - turn-over in that line of work is too great.  And I didn't shop there because of quality - the brand items are the same, and frankly, Smith's shopping bags are so flimsy that I have to request that everything be double-bagged ... or I can look forward to chasing canned goods down the driveway as they roll toward the street out front of my house.

Now that the only good reason for shopping at Smith's - the convenience of knowing where items I generally buy can be located - was gone, I realized that I might as well check out the Albertson's a couple of miles down the street from Smith's.  The drive isn't that much longer, and because I no longer had the bonds of loyalty to hold me back, I'm now "shopping" for a new grocery store. It might wind up being Smith's, but don't count on that.

Example Two:  For decades, I have been a loyal customer of Vaseline's lip balm, which comes in a soft-plastic tube.  This tube fits easily in my pocket, and because it has a screw-top lid, I don't have to worry about the lid coming off, allowing the petroleum jelly to get all over my wallet and pocket knife (the other two "residents" of that pocket).    This product is important to me because I live in the desert (Las Vegas) - the average humidity is about 9%, and petroleum jelly lip balm is essential to day-to-day comfort.

I chose Vaseline because it was based on petroleum jelly, rather than was.   I'd learned a couple of decades ago that the major lip-balm brands, such as Blistex, use a kind of wax that shuts down the body's natural production of lip-lubricating oils. In effect, it's addictive.  If you use it long enough and regularly enough, you'll wind up having to use it all the time.  However, this is not the case with petroleum jelly.  And while there may be other brands of petroleum jelly-based lip-balm on the market, I chose Vaseline ... then stuck with them because I was a satisfied, loyal customer.

Not anymore.  When I went to a couple of drug stores looking for replacement tubes, I couldn't find any.  Eventually, I asked a clerk for help and was told that Vaseline had stopped making the tubes in favor of a small plastic box, about the size of two sugar cubes side-by-side.  Apparently, they expected me to make the switch-over.  However, there are several problems with that:

One:  To use this box-packaged petroleum jelly, I have to swipe it with my finger, then apply it to my lips.  Which means my finger really ought to be clean before I apply it, and it means that I'll then have a finger coated with petroleum jelly - I'll need something to wipe it off.  Taken together, this suggests that I need to access a restroom where I can wash my hands both before and after each application.  NOT convenient.  Or, I can take my chances on finger-cleanliness and wipe my applicator-finger off on the inside of one of my socks, or the inside of one pant-leg.

Two:  Packaging - the lid is snap-on, and it easily snaps off in my pocket if it rubs my wallet or pocket knife the wrong way.  That's one problem.  The other is that, because of it's hard-shell cube-shaped design, it often pops out (unnoticed) when I grab my wallet, pocket knife or keys.  Within days of purchase, I'd already lost my first jelly-cube.

Three:  Flavor - the old stand-by petroleum jelly had essentially no taste, which suited me just fine.  I didn't want a lingering flavor.  However, in the stores, there are now two options - plain or petroleum-jelly-plus-cocoa-butter.  Maybe the cocoa butter is supposed to enhance the product's lip-protection quality, but it definitely imparts a taste.  And for those stores which only have one shelf-spot for the product, what they offer is the cocoa-butter product.  Which I don't want.

Bottom Line:  I am now in the market for both a new grocery store and another brand of petroleum jelly.  The store loyalty would never have been in play without this unnecessary and (for me) unwelcome change.  As for the lip-balm,  I was perfectly satisfied with the "old" product, but I can't find it anywhere, and I'm not wild about its replacement.  The loyalty is gone, and I'm now trying other manufacturers' products, as long as it's petroleum jelly-based and sold in a tube.  So long, Vaseline.

The Risk of Change

These two examples highlight the risks of change.  When I lost my bearings in the grocery store, I no longer had a reason to maintain my loyalty.  The "change" Smith's wanted might inadvertently also be my "change" to a competitor's store.  The "change" Vaseline came up with - actually, two changes, packaging and product composition - already have me scrambling for an alternative product (one that's blended and packaged to meet my preferences) - so, for them, "change" means "we've just lost a long-term client, probably forever."

For some reason, the corporate gnomes at Kroger decided that a make-over change was good - they probably assumed it would bring in new customers.  However, they didn't understand that such a radical change could lead customers like me to start shopping around for another store.  I'm assuming that if the suddenly lost-in-the-store customers hang on through a few shopping trips, they'll start to figure out where "their" products can be found, and their convenience-based loyalty will be reborn.  Perhaps, but for certain they're going to lose some customers.

The same goes for Vaseline, but even more-so.  I was a loyal partisan in favor of Vaseline's lip balm; now I'm actively looking to replace them.

So marketers beware - change for the sake of change will cost you customers you don't  need to lose.  If Vaseline had seen a market for their petroleum jelly cubes, they could have expanded their product line, losing no current customers while also attracting new ones.  But they chose change, and now they're scrambling to make up the market share they just drove away.

Smith's couldn't do that, but they might have implemented changes gradually, with helpful on-site signage saying "pudding has moved to Aisle 3, middle of the aisle" or something like that.  But by making all the changes at once, they have put customer loyalty "in play" ... and that's never a sound marketing strategy.

Note:  I have contacted both Kroger's (for Smith's) and Unilever for Vaseline, but have received no reply.  Should that change, I will update this blog.

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