Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"Driven to score": Desire, pride and consuming to save through extreme couponing

 A woman and her stockpile, image via TLC

Ah... the gym. Great for getting into shape, relieving the stresses of everyday life, improving one's well-being, and... indulging in the guilty pleasure of reality tv shows.

The latter, at least for me, is just one of the many bonuses of hitting up the elliptical machine a few times a week after a hard day's work or a weekend of lounging around the house. My trips to the gym often happen to occur around the afternoon and evening showing of some of television land's best junk programming (Keeping up with the Kardashians, Say Yes to the Dress, and Jersey Shore are three such shows that come to mind).

One recent dose of reality tv du jour was a rerun of TLC's Extreme Couponing. If you aren't familiar with the show, here's the lowdown (by the way, where have you been? doing constructive things with your life?) An hour-long episode typically follows three or four "extreme" couponers (people who basically take everyday couponing to a whole new and quite obsessive level) on their journeys of couponing success, from the clipping and strategizing to the shopping, purchasing, and storing of goods. The show details the who, what, why, when and how of each person's couponing habits. It tells viewers a little bit about the individual's background and personality, and what life experiences and lifestyle desires have led her or him (usually her) to form a hobby (or self-proclaimed obsession) out of couponing. It showcases the types of products the individual likes to buy, and how and where the products are stored in the home. The individual's couponing and procurement strategy, including the clipping and storing of coupons, the planning of shopping trips, the enlistment of couponing assistants, the mitigation of obstacles, etc., are also discussed in detail.

After the extreme couponer is introduced, the show typically segues into the beginning of some sort of purposeful shopping trip planned by the couponer, during which they will showcase the finest in extreme couponing prowess and strategy. The individual is followed from beginning to end as they prepare for and execute the trip. Of the four individuals featured on the particular episode I watched, each had a specific intent for their trip. There was the pregnant woman referred to by her husband-assistant as "Coupon Mom", whose goal was to save enough money from couponing to pay off an old medical bill. A second woman named Amanda attempted to purchase the food for her sister's baby shower without going over her $60 budget. Kelly, a basketball coach for a young girls' team, needed to provide food for an after-game get-together. And lastly, a boy of around 10 years of age (yep) named Sam was going through his couponing rite de passage (a term used by his family) by going out on his first ever shopping trip, for which he planned the couponing strategy himself (as "elders" of sorts, his father and grandfather were passing on the tradition of their self-proclaimed "couponing dynasty" and were there for support and guidance).

 A binder full of coupons, image via Katy Couponers

Consumable trophies, image via College Couponer

"When I see a coupon, I see currency, I see presidents, I see cash." - extreme couponer Amanda
Admittedly, I've only seen a few episodes of this show ever (for a sample size of about 10-12 couponers), but I've noticed a few commonalities shared by these frugal folks. Here are some of the recurring themes I picked up on:
  • A desire to save lots and lots of money from couponing, more than the average thrifty shopper would ever imagine saving in just one shopping trip, often for a specific purpose or future purchase, or in the name of fulfilling obligations to support the family (the amount saved can sometimes total up to 90% of a bill reaching almost $1,000 at the checkout of the local grocery store)
  • A commitment of tens of hours to the entire couponing/shopping process
  • Thoughtful calculation of fairly accurate predictions of how much money will be saved/spent during the entire process
  • Elaborate systems for clipping, sorting, organizing and storing coupons in binders filled with the kind of plastic sleeves commonly used for keeping baseball or Magic the Gathering cards
  • Similarly organized systems for storing and displaying goods as though they are consumable trophies (one woman even put Sticky Notes on her stash of products to keep track of quantity and remind her when she needed to buy more of a specific item)
  • A refusal to let anything get in the way of achieving their goal of saving a ton of money (be it friends, family members, uncooperative cash registers or coupon codes, and other barriers)
  • Assistants (friends, family members, children) who help most often during the actual shopping trip by locating items for which the couponer has coupons, placing said items into the multiple shopping carts (yes, that's plural) they are pushing around the store, and providing moral support in the event that there aren't enough boxes of brown sugar on the shelves or the coupons aren't entering properly into the cash register computer 
  • Massive stockpiles (which basically amount to hoarding) of thousands of mostly processed and manufactured goods worth anywhere from $4,000 to over $15,000, comprised of goods ranging from toilet paper to spaghetti sauce to toothbrushes, and stored in the attics, basements and other rooms of their homes
  • A desire to prepare for the future by stocking up on goods that will support their families for months (years?) to come
  • A tendency to express a sense of angst or fear when things don't go as planned ("I'm going to have an anxiety attack. I really am.", "I'm a hot mess right now.")
  • The use of language characterizing the couponing and shopping experience as a major obstacle to overcome or to "take on", as in "taking on the cash register" and "take down the super market" (the narrator of the show also often describes their actions in this way)
  • A sense of uncertainty that, even after careful planning for their shopping extravaganza, that the coupons won't work or that they won't end up saving as much money as planned
  • A feeling of elation, ecstasy, success and relief from the thrill of the hunt during the shopping experience and from viewing the final price and total discount on the register after all of the coupons have been scanned ("I'm in heaven! Yay!", "It makes me feel relieved that I saved [over $300]".)
  • A sense of pride, ownership and power in the accomplishment of the feat of planning and executing large, complex purchases of goods ("This is fun and I'm the boss!")
  • Elements of both denial and acceptance of the obsessive nature of their hobby ("It's not like 20 boxes is really an obsessive amount", "I'm addicted to them like I am couponing!")
Success! Image via NYDailyNews.com
Another thing I have noticed, though it's not always the case for every extreme couponer featured, is that many are driven by the perception that saving on purchases through extreme couponing is a form of saving money. Yes, that's typically what coupons are for. However, their habits are often characterized by the mantra of consuming to save (which seems like an oxymoron), or consuming to pay debt (as in the case of Coupon Mom, who needed to pay off a past-due medical bill). But do they actually end up using all of those goods? What happens to the stuff that expires? And, how can one "save" money by spending more, especially on such an excessive amount of supposedly "necessary" goods? What is the point if, in the end, you're just going to use the money you "save" to buy more stuff? And what are you really going to do with 216 bottles of lotion? Dump it all in a bath tub and go for a swim? 

But enough joking and back to the critical analysis. Amanda, the woman purchasing the food for her sister's baby shower, admitting to having a previous addition to shopping. She perceived her newfound hobby of extreme couponing to be a healthy alternative, when the outside observer might consider it to be an replacement addition of equal concern. Sam, the young kid who had been enculturated by his father and grandfather with the values of couponing, said of his father: "[It makes my dad happy because it saves my dad more money so he can buy more stuff."

The other difference I noticed was the variation in reactions and responses of the people in the couponers' support networks. Some friends and family members seem supportive of their hobbies, while others jokingly mock the obsessions of their loved ones. Some of them benefit from the couponers' hard work (Amanda did all the shopping for her sister's baby shower), while others are negatively affected (e.g. their personal belongings are displaced by the expansion of the storage area designated for procured goods). For a more specific example, after she stuffed the last remaining section of her husband's clothing into a garbage bag, hangars and all, Coupon Mom asked rhetorically, and perhaps even seriously, "What would he rather have, clothes or products?" Earlier, when she and her husband were shopping, she reprimanded him for not being a good assistant when he accidentally grabbed a large number of instant noodle packages that happened to be the wrong brand.


That's about the end of my observations and thoughts on the intriguing display of consumption, desire, and lifestyle choices that is Extreme Couponers. Given my fascination with the sociocultural implications of such portrayals of extreme behavior in American society, I may do a similar post again in the future. In fact, I would so enjoy the opportunity to do ethnographic fieldwork with extreme couponers to further understand the why behind their hobbies (along with some analysis of the systemic phenomena associated with such practices), especially since TLC only has about 40 minutes each episode to present what they capture on camera (and the "realism" of such shows is questionable). Who knows how different the picture would look (literally and figuratively) behind the scenes.

Life and career mantras from Tina Roth Eisenberg, part one

Swiss designer, blogger and creative business-woman Tina Roth Eisenberg shares four mantras/rules for success in life and in business (via this article from Fast Company).

1. Do what you love.

2. Don't be a complainer, make things better. Either let it go, or do something about it.

3. Trust your intuition. What does your gut say?

4. If an opportunity scares you, you need to take it.

I totally agree with these guidelines and think they're important and useful for decisions related to life, business and careers. We are lucky if we find ourselves being able to do what we love, but its our own initiative, hard work, creativity and networking (and a small dose of good luck) that get us there. I like the second one because occasionally, when I find myself complaining about something, I feel much better about it when I actually stop to think about the problem and come up with a solution, even if its temporary. It can be so good for one's well-being! In my mind, it relates to her first point of doing what you love. If you're stuck in a job you hate, or only sort of like for whatever reason, it makes it much easier and much more enjoyable if you can turn it into a positive situation and focus on the things you do love about it.

As for intuition, I tend to follow mine. When I end up going down the wrong path, I sometimes curse myself under my breath. Better to move on and learn from ones choices and create new strategies than to dwell on what could have been, I say. Still, following my inner conscience has been something that has worked out well for me in the past. My sense is that conscience/intuition have a lot to do with learning from ones mistakes, rethinking and reformulating strategies, observing behavioral patterns and habits (personal and those of others), and oh!, managing expectations. That is a mantra in and of itself for me.

I also like this last one because it presents a different way of thinking about the opportunities that present themselves on a daily basis in our lives (though their importance, complexity and implications vary widely). There are lots of scary paths we can walk down and thresholds to cross, but sometimes going through painful or scary experiences can be very rewarding and life-changing in the end.

By the way, there are actually supposed to be eight mantras, so I feel like this post is a little half-baked (for some reason, the second half of the video is missing and is nowhere to be found anywhere on the internet - I already tried looking). If you happen to find it, please let me know.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Some reasons to consider daytime focus groups

Consumer, market, and other industry researchers are all very familiar with nighttime focus groups.  The common perception is that it's easier to recruit participants for groups in the evening because they spend all day working and have free time at night, and that it avoids recruiting too many stay-at-home moms, retirees, students, and other "undesirable" respondents. I'm not actually aware of any other reason for nighttime groups other than these. Oh, and that it just happens to be the industry standard, at least as far as I can tell.  

This article, however, does a great job of countering the notion that nighttime focus groups are the best option with a brief outline of a couple pretty pertinent reasons.

While I would not advocate for doing only daytime focus groups (I would advocate for choosing what's best depending on the project goals and timeline), the author, Ron Raskin, highlights some great reasons for “challenging the industry norm.”  

Raskin is a veteran marketing consultant and partner at Insights In Marketing. In his many years of experience, daytime groups tend to have a better show rate and elicit more emotive responses from more engaged and receptive participants. I imagine this can be quite different than an 8:00 pm group of participants who got up at the crack of dawn to get their kids to school, go to work, sit at a desk all day, and sit in traffic for an hour just to get to the facility. How tiring! Oh, and that point about people working during the day? He cites the increasingly common flexible work schedule of many modern American workers, which enables people to take a break from their 9-5 (or 7-3, etc.) or come in on their day off to participate in a group.

He also argues that daytime groups provide more flexibility for the overall research timeline by allowing more time during the day for concurrent research and planning activities. This point really resonates with me considering the short timelines for most of the projects I work on, many of which use focus groups as a key methodology. Although I prefer to limit the amount of groups I do to just a few a day, doing it during the day would allow for me to spread them out far enough so I can rest in between as well as analyze data if time is of the essence (not to mention take care of other work/projects/email/etc.). In the past, I've only done focus groups at night, which has caused me to limit the number of groups to only two per day (one at 5:30 pm and a second at 8:00 pm).

Both day- and nighttime groups have their pros and cons, and in the business world, scheduling them often comes down to what is most cost-efficient and convenient. But what seems like something that will get you the 'best bang for your buck' may not always get you the best insights, which are worth more money in the long run than any savings you might get up front. And even though there are preventive measures researchers can take to design approaches and methods that will give us the best results, the success of focus groups in particular largely depends on the ability of the moderator to engage participants, no matter the topic of discussion (insurance, anyone?). 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Yes, there are actual real human beings behind that online survey you're taking!

Here's something I've never seen before - an online customer experience survey with a photo of the people who actually designed the survey and are eagerly waiting on the other end for customer feedback. :) What a novel idea to personalize such a typically impersonal interaction. Great job, LinkedIn!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Mediocrity and the airline industry: a follow-up

Lockheed L-100 Hercules via San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives

This is a follow-up to my recent post on dealing with what I've lately been perceiving as the mediocrity of Delta Airlines.

On trip to D.C. last week, I ended up sitting next to an older gentleman who, from now on, I'll refer to as M. He and I had a very nice conversation that lasted most of the flight, chatting about our professions, what we studied in school, and other things. I quickly learned that M. just so happened to be a senior pilot for Delta, so I took the opportunity to ask him some probably rather atypical questions about the airline industry, flying, customer experiences, you know, the typical market research type stuff. (Later, when I revealed to him what it is I do for a living, he said he wasn't surprised given the types of questions I posed.)

M. has been a pilot with Delta for 22 years and was heading to a conference about aviation safety. I won't relive the entire conversation here, partially because I can't remember most of it. But I do want to share a few points that I wrote down field notes-style during a pause in our discussion. I think they are worth noting because they changed my perceptions and expectations around the potential for the customer experience when flying Delta.Oh, what a little bit of perspective can do...
  • M. estimates that only about 10% of flight delays are do to actual human incompetence, while everything else is the result of uncontrollable factors like the weather.
  • Regional carrier outsourcing (i.e., when Delta sells its regional business to smaller companies) has led to a poorer customer experience because of lower standards and a lack of quality control. With these companies, the rate of incompetence increases to an estimated 30%.
  • Many of the planes are understaffed, another cause of poor customer experiences.
  • He feels that one of the best things Delta can do for customers who have been inconvenienced in some way is for the pilot to intervene, make his or her presence known to passengers, and apologize for any delays.
On the flip-side:
  • M. feels that Delta has become much more customer-focused than they were in the past. He cites better marketing and technological improvements (e.g., Delta's mobile app, self check-in kiosks) as examples.
  • Delta also focuses more on its employees than they used to; he says that keeping them happy is key to customer happiness.
  • They could do better at keeping customers informed about flight statuses, inclement weather, etc., to mitigate any frustration on the customer end. Yes, even though the delays are most often not their fault.
  • Also, fuel costs a lot of money. So much that Delta has purchased its own refinery to save some cheese. This leads to cost-cutting measures like baggage fees and fewer on-board amenities, so customers have to carry the brunt of the burden. No news here, except the thing about Delta buying its own refinery (this makes total sense to me, but what do I know?).
Before finding out that I do market research, M. actually took the time to ask my opinion about some of the issues at hand. Of course, I had no shortage of responses; I tried to be honest, yet my goal was also to listen to his perspective on things in order to have a better, more informed opinion of my own. M. also happened to have an MBA, so our discussion about the customer experience and marketing strategies (after I revealed my hidden identity) was an enlightening one.

I enjoyed getting the perspective of someone who deals with Delta's logistics and inner-workings on a regular, first-hand basis. It got me thinking about things I had not considered in the past during all of my griping reflections on my recent Delta experiences. I appreciated M.'s honesty about how he thinks Delta can continue to improve the customer experience, but also that he defended his company and the good things it tries to do. It takes a lot of guts for a company to admit fault, but it's a whole new ball game when it's willing to alleviate the stresses and frustrations of customers that are caused by something that's not even its fault to begin with. I still feel that there are no excuses for some of the things I've seen and experienced while flying (overbooked flights, regional outsourcing, etc.), but from now on I'll continue to try and be more open-minded when it comes to my expectations for flying with Delta, and possibly other carriers as well.

Thursday, August 2, 2012