December 11, 2013
Q&A with consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow
Kit Yarrow is a professor of both psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, applying the practices of clinical psychology to behavioral economics to understand why consumers do what they do. She co-wrote the 2009 book Gen Buy: How Tweens, Teens and Twenty-Somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail, and has another book, Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy, due in 2014. One chapter addresses rising consumer impatience, one of our 10 Trends for 2014. Yarrow outlined her belief that it’s not only our mindset that’s changing but our brains, a shift that carries wide-ranging implications for marketers.
How do you see this Age of Impatience taking shape?
I think consumers look at [impatience] as a virtue, whereas in the past the ability to tolerate ambiguity or work through a problem in a [patient] manner was considered a positive personality characteristic. Consumers not only are more impatient, but I think they look at things that are faster, less perfect but more immediate as better. That to me changes everything about how we market and the sorts of products that people want.
What is driving this trend?
It started with our use of technology. Our brains are malleable, and so the parts of our brains we use become stronger and those we don’t become weaker and less effective. I think our ability to withstand slow, measured, thoughtful ways of going about acquiring information have shifted, and people need more stimulation.
It means marketers really have to “up” everything. It has to be harder, faster, better, stronger all the time. That’ll just continue. Even though [consumers] say they want to slow things down, there’s no evidence at all to show that that’s happening. In fact, it’s quite the reverse. Things just get faster and faster.
Technology has always enabled the world to move faster, though.
I don’t think we’ve seen the exponential level of change that we have in our [recent] use of personal technology. Most notably the cell phone has completely altered the world, and our use of it is so ubiquitous. It’s having a profound effect on how we think. Nothing that’s ever happened before comes close to the impact of smartphones on how people process information. We literally think differently than we ever have before. We as human beings process information in different ways than we ever have before.
You can’t overstate the importance of a consumer who literally processes information and attends to things and makes decisions with a different kind of brain than the brains that we had 10 years ago. Obviously the younger you are, the more this will impact you. But even for older generations, everybody uses technology now. It’s true for everybody.
How has technology changed our mindset and our thinking?
Technology has proven to be so wonderful in that it’s improved our lives in so many ways that people have a greater trust for the new. New is better in a way that it’s really never existed before. We have a much higher expectation that new and improved things will be coming our way.
For the first time in the history of marketing, new really is better. There’s trust in innovation. Marketers and companies that don’t innovate constantly are looked at as dinosaurs. In one way or another, they’ve got to showcase that they’re also innovating constantly.
Our use of technology and our impatience, a lot of that has manifested in the power that consumers feel. They feel much more confident to find their own solutions. They’re even less patient about companies getting it right. Consumers, I think, through the capability of technology feel very empowered, which also means they’re less patient with slow-moving vehicles, and that would [also apply to] marketers and products that don’t innovate.
Then the third area—and to me this is the most important one—is that we literally think differently than we did before. We process information in snippets. That means that marketers have to be more knowledgeable about semiotics and any sort of non-verbal communication, because people look at symbols, colors, visuals, smells, all the other senses as ways of acquiring information very, very quickly.
How much does the “always on” culture affect our impatience? We’re multitasking, and we’re constantly connected.
It’s a “quantity over quality” mentality that’s changed consumers. One person having a deep conversation with you has been replaced by 50 people having a snippet of a conversation with you. To me that’s very similar psychologically to our sense of impatience in that it forces us in some ways to skim the surface. It takes focus in order for us to take big messages in, which means that both in our relationships with products and in our relationships with people, we tend to skim the surface more. That’s a part of our faster, more superficial way of acquiring information that’s related to the new way that we think.
How have our communications been affected by this new impatience?
[The other half] of less attention is a greater need for stimulation. If people have less focus, if they can’t attend to things for a longer period of time, then if you want to break through it has to be more intense.
What impact does impatience have in the marketplace?
I think people are looking for products that have quick fixes in ways maybe they weren’t before. They’re more attracted to things that are sort of magical solutions. They have a greater belief in products to be quick and magical solutions. In general they have less fortitude for problem-solving and working through any sort of dissatisfaction with a retailer or a brand.
Do you see growing expectations of immediacy and instant gratification in instances where we accepted long waits in the past? For example, it once took up to a year for the latest fashions to reach Main Street from Milan, but now we can buy them almost overnight.
Just look at how impatient people are for the next go-round of technology. There’s a constant hunger for the next thing, and there’s a constant expectation—or an increasing expectation—that the next thing be available immediately when they want it. That just presents a whole different challenge for marketers—they have to anticipate needs. They can’t wait for consumers to tell them.
They have to know their consumers well enough to be able to anticipate what that person is going to need the moment they need it. If it’s a moment later, then they’re late. If [consumers] can’t get their problem solved right away, they’re upset and angry faster than they ever were before. As a psychologist, I always think that that’s a toddler mentality. I would never call my consumers that, but it’s the same sort of concept of, “I want to be understood even if I’m not able to articulate what I need. I want somebody to see me and know me.”
How much of this is generational, and how much of it is an adaptation of our expectations?
I think it’s both. Some of it is what we use, but what we use and what we want is a reflection of how we’ve changed as well. It’s not linear; it’s kind of a circular causality that, because we want things faster, we seek out these new methods. When we have good interactions with these new methods, it comes to be expected as the norm, and the companies that don’t keep up or don’t try these things are looked at differently now because of those positive interactions.
The whole thing starts by being able to understand and predict how this different mentality, this impatience, is going to impact the way our consumers want to interact with us as marketers and brands and what their expectations are. You have to look at every aspect of interaction with your product and anticipate impatience and the need for speed and all the ramifications of that.
[Consumers are] going to want to shop at any time when they want to shop. They’re going to have less patience with dealing with long shipping times or inventory issues or any snafus. Getting rid of any sort of problem that can come up in getting what they want, whether it’s finding a parking spot during the holiday season or long shipping times, they want those attended to. It’s not only giving people what they want, it’s removing any sort of obstacle that can come into their path. Anything you can do to make it easy for people to make decisions makes sense.
Is there a counter trend to this? Some people are embracing slower living, putting their cell phones away, etc.
You hear about how people are unplugging from Facebook. These things are often reported. They’re reported more because they are a way to show us that we’re struggling with some aspects. We’re emotionally struggling with some of the aspects of this new, more superficial, impatient society we live in. But I don’t think they seem to last. They’re like fads.
Our ways of using technology will evolve. As human beings we have to feel deeply connected to other human beings to be happy. Right now we see a lot of people that feel a little bit less happy because of their lack of deep connectivity with others, and they’re searching for ways to connect. But generally I don’t see this [impatience] going away.
Does it ever end?
I can’t talk about the future, because I don’t know what will happen, but I do know for sure that our minds have changed. I don’t see us going back. It’s not like a vacation; it’s not like we’re visiting a new mental state. They have changed, period.