According to recent market studies, consumers are struggling with more than their wallets these days. Affluent shoppers in particular are feeling conflicted between their desire to spend and their aspiration to do the right thing, say the market researchers at Trendwatching.com. They are looking for products and services that will deliver value and quality while, at the same time, provide reassurance that they do no harm.
Even the wealthiest consumers have become more conscientious about their buying habits. The most recent Affluent Market Tracking study, conducted biannually by the American Affluence Research Center, reveals that America’s most affluent citizens (defined as the top 10 percent of all U.S. households, based on net worth) are continuing to err on the side of caution when it comes to spending vs. saving.
Although they are somewhat more optimistic than they were a year ago that their financial situation will improve in 2014, they have scaled back or deferred plans for major new purchases, including luxury items and home renovations. Moreover, affluent consumers have become skeptical of luxury brands that promote trendy lifestyles and conspicuous consumption. They view their luxury purchases as quality-conscious and eschew brands that they feel appeal to “status-seekers” and those who want to flaunt their wealth.
In addition to worries about their personal wealth, affluent consumers are concerned about broader social and global issues, such as the effects of climate change and environmental degradation, as well as the continuing economic slump and widespread unemployment. They have also been affected by media reports of unethical and exploitative business practices, and of health issues related to consumption and tainted products.
As a result, say the Trendwatching researchers, consumers are experiencing guilt over how they spend and on what. They are taking a closer look at how companies conduct their business, from where they source their products and whether they are engaged in socially responsible initiatives.
Consumer guilt has become an impediment for some brands but is creating opportunities for others. The key to wooing today’s consumers, advises Trendwatching, is to identify the choices that cause the consumer the most concern and “absolve” them of the guilt.
In the food industry, that translates into reducing fats and sugars and providing more healthy alternatives. In consumer goods, that means using sustainable and recyclable materials. Across the board, it includes conducting business in a manner that consumers deem ethical and giving back to the community, however that is defined.
Interior designers have already felt the brunt of consumer guilt in the form of smaller projects and reduced spending on product. The report, however, suggests that designers can also benefit from offering clients “guilt-free” solutions for their projects.
Employing sustainable design and eco-friendly products is an obvious option. But bear in mind that clients will probably need to be educated about the sustainable or eco-friendly features of a product. In addition, provide them with information about the manufacturer’s green practices and any product certifications they may have earned.
Another way to alleviate clients’ concerns is to proactively point out ways they can economize while maintaining quality, and help them to understand the life-cycle benefits (both financial and environmental) of the solutions you are proposing.
If clients are concerned about replacing furniture, appliances or fixtures that appear to be in good condition, you might want to offer to help them find a “new home” with a local nonprofit organization or family in need. In short, apply your ability to solve problems to addressing the client’s need to feel less guilty about undertaking a renovation or remodeling project, or something larger.
Guilt-free consumption is predicated on responsibility. Consumers will spend if they feel that in doing so they are making good choices for themselves, for society and for the planet. In a recent interview, Gerald Lawless, CEO of the luxury chain Jumeirah Hotels, was asked whether he was concerned that implementing sustainability measures in his hotels would drive high-end customers away.
On the contrary, he replied, “It is important to remember that luxury isn’t just about hedonism; it’s also about recognizing the sophistication of your customers, it’s about engaging the customer so ultimately they feel a lot better about staying with us because they know we have a responsible attitude toward the environment.”
That is guilt-free consumerism in a nutshell.
Michael J. Berens is a freelance researcher and writer with more than 30 years of experience in association communication and management.