Bob Franken

Consumer Confidence Game

Nobody will ever mistake me for someone who sees the glass as half full. And when it comes to our economy, anybody who sees anything left in the glass at all could reasonably be classified as half fool. So imagine my embarrassment: I detect a few drops in the bottom.

Believe it or not, it has to do with the precipitous drop in retail spending. Obviously, spending is one of the main underpinnings of a successful economy…conversely less buying, means reduced manufacturing, layoffs, less money, less buying, the downward spiral goes ’round and ’round.

Sales are in the crapper (too technical for you?). The lack of consumer confidence becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. We know all that.

But here comes the faint glimmer of hope from Mr. Pollyanna: While most, for good reason, will see our economy as a disaster, maybe…just maybe…there’s some opportunity here.

In the last decades of spend, spend, spend, the customer has usually been treated like what you find in the aforementioned crapper. What if the routine adversarial relationship was replaced? What if, in the new frantic scramble for business, retailers, manufacturers, you name it, competed by showing their customers respect. Now THAT would be “change you can believe in”.

Wouldn’t it be revolutionary if suddenly the service industries would actually give service? Can you imagine a world where products worked like they were supposed to, installers showed up when they were scheduled, telephone support people were responsive and spoke intelligible English? Sounds like a fantasy, doesn’t it?

However, now that just about all of us have gotten downright miserly, what with our financial well-being crashing around us, maybe this is an idea whose time has come.

Imagine how successful the merchant will be who simply adopts the slogan “WE WON’T CHEAT YOU ANYMORE!!” Consider how the crowds might flock to his store or web site if he really doesn’t cheat. What if advertising was honest?

What if the customer was treated like a person, instead of a nuisance? Think of a world without Audix. The possibilities simply boggle the mind. What a marketing approach: Give people what they pay for. I doubt if they teach that at the MBA schools.

Admittedly, this is such a radical departure from the way things are done today that it won’t happen right away. Ingrained bad habits of routine deceit are really hard to break. But as the world of commerce continues to implode the merchants will get so frantic they will have no choice but to attract reluctant customers by being straight with them. As we’ve seen by all the bankruptcies, and pending failures, shoddy products and service just aren’t cutting it anymore. This might be the time for an alternative.

So amidst all the despair, there is that molecule of hope. A new strategy could evolve: Honesty. If consumers regain confidence, they will gravitate to the companies that keep their promises.

It’s even something the politicians might consider. Although THAT’S a little too far out.

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