This morning I went to our local town centre for a bit of shopping. While I was waiting for my drug dealer (Boots) to process my prescription for yet more medication I popped into WHSmith. One of the things I’ll be doing after I retire next month (have I mentioned that?) is to buy a new car, so I bought a magazine to help me choose. The assistant dropped a couple of pieces of promo stuff into the bag and when I got home I found this:
“What a good offer,” I thought, as I don’t often shop in WHS and with such a large discount and four weeks to use it as often as I wanted, it was likely to make me spend money in there. Then I turned it over and saw the small print. After locating my magnifying glass and wading through this I began to reconsider. The first set of conditions limited the range of branches in which you could use the voucher, and read:
“Subject to availability. Offer valid at selected WHSmith High Street stores only. Excludes Outlet Stores, Online, ‘Books by WHSmith’ at Selfridges, Harrods, Arnotts and Fenwick’s stores, WHSmith ‘Local’ and all Travel Stores including those at airports, railway stations, motorway service stations, hospitals and workplaces.”
After some calculation I managed to work out that as Epping High Street has not yet become the second runway for Stansted Airport, nor has the M11 been diverted through it and we’re still waiting for Harrods to move here, I could use it in the branch that gave it to me. Great! Now, what can I buy with it? Oh, there appear to be a few exclusions:
Newspapers and magazines
CDs, DVDs, games and gaming consoles
Book Customer Orders
Day Out vouchers
Stickers and Collectables
National Lottery Products
WHSmith Travel Insurance
Cannot be used in conjunction with any other promotional voucher.”
Well that’s OK then, I can use it on all the other things that WHS sell, can’t I? Pity though, I’d been hoping to kill myself smoking while on an extreme experience – bungee jumping perhaps – whilst listening to some new music I’d just downloaded, sticking some stickers into my new Justin Beaver and OneFootballer albums. And reading the latest books on my new Kobo eReader by all of the marvellous authors who follow me on this blog and on Twitter. And then maybe dropping into the theatre to round off my discount splurge. Oh well, there’s still a lot I can use it for. An idea dawned (a rarity, I know): I could get some new printer cartridges. But wait a moment, the 20% off won’t make much of a dent in the WHS price, which is more than twice what I buy them for online. Another idea dawned (two in the same week!): I could buy some books. But I can get them more cheaply to read on my Kindle Fire HD, which also saves on storage space – more room in my flat for CDs and DVDs! When it boils down to it, I think that just about leaves stationery and greetings cards. I don’t have any imminent birthdays to buy for but I could start getting Christmas cards and related tat – oh, but Christmas doesn’t start until September, after the offer is over. And who writes letters or doesn’t ‘borrow’ stationery from work these days, anyway?
Still with me? Good! This may surprise you, but this isn’t intended to be a rant. The point I am labouring over is that it is crazy for a company to offer a promotion and make it either very limited in availability or complicated to understand. Or both. I wouldn’t mind betting that assistants in branches of WHS all over the country will spend the next four weeks patiently explaining to customers who aren’t as boring and pedantic as me, and who haven’t therefore bothered with the small print, that they can get 20% off bugger all! This is a classic example of what I call ‘Tarrant’ marketing……
It got me thinking about other promotions and marketing efforts that don’t offer much, or make it very difficult to find. A fairly basic example, which we’ve all seen, is the market stall ‘40p each, 2 for £1’ deal. I know someone who once fell for this, although I wouldn’t embarrass her by revealing her identity. But I used to be married to her daughter.
There have also been some spectacular marketing failures. Does anyone remember the great Hoover promotion of the 1990s, which aimed to clear out an over-stocked warehouse by offering two free return flights? It went fairly well until it was extended to the USA, whose consumers soon realised that it was much cheaper to buy a new washing machine or vacuum cleaner than air tickets. Demand for the goods rapidly exceeded supply and the company was swamped with redemption vouchers for the tickets. This being the USA, the inevitable lawsuits quickly followed and the whole farce took around six years to sort out. Hoover quietly sold their UK division in the midst of the hoo-hah – not the kind of result they had planned, really.
More recently, with the advent of the Interweb, a huge amount of purchasing has moved online, and this has opened up a whole new range of possibilities for companies to bemuse their potential customers. Ever tried working out what is the best gas or electricity tariff for you? Or buying insurance? How about the best mobile phone deal (that’s cellphone, for my North American friends). The comparison websites are in business to make money for themselves, obviously, so they can’t be relied on to make things easy for us if in doing so they point us towards a cheaper product for which they receive less commission. I’m thinking of starting a new venture: a website to compare the comparison websites. I’ll call it GoConfuseTheMeerkatInTheSupermarket.com.
My most recent experience of this was in buying a railway ticket. I’ve used the London Underground for so long I can’t remember the last time I went on a grown-up train. So, having seen all those wonderful (not) TV adverts for the Trainline I hit their website. (In the interests of fairness I should point out that other confusing travel websites are available). It may be a symptom of my rapid approach towards Silver Surfer status, but this wasn’t the easy process I had expected. I could find train times which were accompanied by a range of prices, but these were given all sorts of odd names and were subject to apparently hidden conditions on their availability. Such a shame, then, that I could find no easy way to decipher which fares applied at what time. In the end, I gave up on getting a discount and decided to buy a ticket on the day I travelled. Believe it or not, it cost exactly the same as the Trainline website was offering it for. Clive 1, Trainline/Interweb 0! What I don’t get is why a product which is so difficult to use for first time customers gears its advertising at people with single digit IQs?
All those years ago when I did my MBA in Marketing, back in pre-history, we were taught common sense basics: match your product and its promotion to your market, and offer fair value for money. In other words, make it clear what your product offer is and make your promotion meaningful and realistic, as consumers are generally more intelligent than whizkid marketers seem to think.
It’s not too much to ask, is it?