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Home > Business Tips > Guilty Pleasures – is Fair Trade here to stay

Guilty Pleasures – is Fair Trade here to stay

There is of course nothing new in the psychology of shopping. People buy what they need, what they think they need, or what will make them feel better. There is also nothing new (or nothing wrong!) with retailers using these factors to increase their sales and their profits. One way to feel better when it comes to buying is to buy something you feel is commendable, e.g., eco-friendly items, locally produced food or fair-trade products. Another way is to buy them in order to compensate for perhaps less ‘ethical’ lifestyle habits or purchases. A town dweller pulling up in a 4x4 for example, buying seeds and organic fertilizer for her vegetable patch, or the family buying eco-friendly gardening products and organic food in between jetting off to two foreign holidays a year. We buy to assuage the guilt that our habits are less than perfect.


Advertisers and retailers have long recognised the power of guilt within a consumer and how to exploit it. Look carefully at many TV or magazine adverts. First we are made to feel bad about something, and then they offer the solution, that special purchase they wish us to make. We are either not feeding our children well enough, not cleaning our houses, looking after our cars or our gardens, or even pampering ourselves as well as we should. (Look at the success of the L’Oreal campaign - ‘Because You’re Worth It’)  My own experience in retail as a confectioner revealed a direct correlation between guilt and value of the sale. Husbands who forgot or only just remembered Valentines or Mothers day rushing in at the last moment brought the biggest boxes of chocolates.


What makes this such a hot topic at the moment are the huge global issues out there such as the environment, world poverty, free-trade, and fuel shortages, all of which are spawning a new generation of even more guilt ridden ‘conscience-shoppers’. And which arena perhaps gives them the most scope to assuage these feelings? The garden and leisure retail sector. Many of us are now aware of our ‘carbon footprint’, and the need to limit it as much as possible, and in many ways the consumer choices available in garden retail offer perfect ways to achieve this, or to ‘offset’ – compensate for – some of our less eco friendly habits. Garden retailers have always stocked plants but now many plant ranges can be branded for the ‘conscience shopper’ – shoppers concerned about food miles are now into ‘grow your own’, a trend which is definitely on the up.


Businesses have also recognised the need to be more eco-friendly – e.g., the Body Shop, and Innocent Drinks, and operate consciously to reduce their environmental impact. Many recognise that doing so brings good publicity and a great promotional angle. A local beer I recently picked up (Adnams) proudly states it is now ‘carbon neutral’, i.e., produced as eco friendly as possible with any remaining ‘carbon footprint’ erased by the planting of a specific number of trees! Many businesses probably do both – i.e., make choices for ethical reasons, and also promote their green credentials in the interest of profit.

What does seem indisputable is that people will generally pay premiums for what they consider to be the ‘right’ or ‘good’ consumer option. For example, organic foods and products such as fertilizers and seeds, fair-trade products, locally produced crafts and plants. Charlotte Mulvey, author of ‘Your Guide To Shopping With A Clear Conscience’, believes this is partly because we subconsciously think the best things will cost more, and out of ‘conscience-guilt’ we will pay it, and partly because the consumer has no clear idea how much these things take to produce and bring to the shelves, and how much mark-up the retailer is adding. Retailers – including those in garden retail - have not of course been slow to exploit this, often for example charging more for locally produced plants, fruit and veg than for products which have travelled miles and knocked up greater production costs.


My personal view is that the tide is slowly turning against so called ‘guilt shopping’, and garden retailers would be wise to take note. The consumer is becoming more aware of how these eco and Fair-Trade products are perhaps being overpriced, and that the ‘ethical’ or conscience-shopper is being exploited.  Take for example the furore about Tesco’s decision during the March Fair-Trade fortnight to mark up its Fair-Trade products range. The costs of producing organic products are also now being challenged. The message seems to be that it is quite fair for a retailer to use these lines to make profits – as they do with all products – but to do so with sense and subtlety.


So what are the pit-falls for the garden retailer? Mulvey believes that people buy more ‘conscience’ choices when they feel they are being offered in an informative creative manner, and by retailers who at least pay lip-service to some ethical ideals. She states that consumers are now expecting a higher and more consistent quality, that they want the benefits to be clear and well defined, and the product to offer value in terms of quality and price.  John Davis from the Consumer Association also warns retailers against appearing to preach to the consumer or to criticise their other consumer choices. He emphasises the danger of overpricing or offering poor quality conscience-shopper products, such as the wilting locally produced plant or organic ‘farm shop’ goods.


Another pit-fall to avoid is the demonising or devaluing of other merchandise within the store. If you extol too heavily the virtues of the green or fair-trade alternative, what will happen to the sales of your traditional staple products? Paco Underhill in his book ‘The Science of Shopping’ suggests that people actually buy more of all items within both the eco friendly and non-eco friendly ranges when they are offered together, and not confined to two different displays or areas of the shop floor. Maybe this is because it plays on the consumer’s wish to buy both the economically sound choice, but then to compensate it with an ethical purchase of a different kind?


As in all retail however the bottom line is that we want customers to spend more, but also to return. If they feel as ‘conscience-shoppers’ overtly manipulated or exploited they won’t come back, and overpricing is usually the culprit here! Offer good quality fair priced alternatives and products however, and it should be a win-win situation for both the garden retailer and the ethical consumer.