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The profits & pitfalls of peddling convenience driven technology

03 Oct 18

Feeling ‘too busy’ has become the status quo. Who can honestly say they haven’t used this line in the last week; I know I can’t. The truth is, almost all of us are extremely busy between work, leisure, relationships and other ‘important’ stuff like keeping up with our Instagram accounts. 

Thankfully, that’s where convenience comes in. As our lives become more jam-packed, we turn to quick and easy solutions to free up our time and provide much-needed relief, or paradoxically, we turn to solutions which allow us to do even more ‘important’ stuff!

Rapid technological advancements have also heightened consumers’ desire for on-demand, convenient solutions. It’s hard not to become accustomed to the ease in which we can now grab an Uber to a mate’s house, switch on lights and music by asking Google Home, order in a restaurant-quality meal using the Deliveroo app, or stream the latest movies with Netflix.  It’s almost like living in a push-button George Jetson cartoon world, but without the cool spaceships and ditty theme song.

With the newly empowered customer come many brands and organisations willing to capitalise, having profited through the promise of convenience. This is due to the fact that products and services that take some of the hassles out of life are often seen to be worth their price tag.  For example, in recent years, same day shipping has grown 120% as a Google search request despite fast deliveries being costed at a premium. 

Just look at the enduring dominance of iTunes and Amazon, both of which managed to get consumers to open their wallets by offering convenience in the form of easy to download entertainment and online shopping. But here is the catch: having a too narrow focus on convenience can be risky business for people and companies alike.

Earlier this year, in his popular New York Times opinion piece, ‘The Tyranny Of Convenience’, academic Tim Wu identified many downsides to convenience for individuals. He argues that struggle and effort aren’t always issues, in fact, these things may actually deliver enjoyment, fulfilment or help build a sense of identity.  

Think about how you might feel after running a marathon or even wrangling together a piece of IKEA furniture – despite the aches or random extra furniture parts you inevitably end up with – these things feel good, right? 

As such, companies operating in the realm of convenient solutions need to ask the question: what happens if products or services are made too fast or too easy for consumers – are they in fact creating new problems for individuals? Or removing some of the enjoyment?

In the 1950s, the marketing geniuses behind baking behemoth Betty Crocker literally cracked this conundrum. Their powdered cake mixes offered a reprieve for busy housewives, who should have been cheering.  

However, by taking so much time and effort out of the baking process, something was missing for these American ladies.  This was eventually solved with the inclusion of a requirement to crack and mix in an egg – just enough work to demonstrate that baking was indeed a labour of love for the family… the operative word here being “labour”.

A modern example of this is the on-demand home beautician services on the rise. Thanks to apps like DialAStyle, we may actually see a decline in user satisfaction as consumers begin to miss the sensorial and luxurious salon experiences which are hard to replicate at home. So while convenience may help us save time to do even more stuff, it may at the same time take away from the actual experience we were seeking to start with.

It’s not just consumers that can be negatively impacted by convenience - in many cases, employees may also be adversely affected. Powering the back end of many online delivery services is often a workforce of people employed with zero-hour or short-term contracts. 

This makes great commercial sense as on-demand staff are well placed to meet on-demand consumer needs.  However, this so-called ‘gig economy’ continues to come under fire for poor worker treatment, with everything from underpaid staff to bullying accusations.

Despite giving the end-consumer the convenient services they demand, associations with unjust work practices can ultimately come back to bite companies where it hurts most (i.e. in their sales figures), as consumers become more ethically aware and start to demonstrate their values by taking their green bags elsewhere.  On that note - the recent furore over plastic bags in major Aussie supermarkets is a good example of consumers having debates over conscience vs convenience.

Whilst convenience is a formidable driver for modern consumers, it is critical for businesses to recognise the potential pitfalls of myopically focusing on delivering convenient solutions to consumers. As Olympic skater Steven Bradbury taught us if you manage not to trip up, there’s always an upside and it is just as important to think about the opportunities that a problem presents. 

The key to success is arguably where brands and organisations can leverage modern technological advances to give consumers the convenience they demand, but at the same time, not lose sight of other personal elements that can drive positive response e.g. rich immersive experiences or a sense of worthwhile effort, involvement or achievement.

If a company can work out how to do all of the above, whilst being fair employers and good corporate citizens, then that would be the ultimate way to drive sustainable profit from convenience.

Article by Lauren Wilkin, Senior Research Consultant, The Leading Edge APAC & My Hansson, Senior Research Executive, also from The Leading Edge APAC