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From a nice piece of flint to footy cards, to stamps, to teaspoons or TEA towels, humans have long walked the fine line between collecting and hoarding. Marketing departments have been quick to harness this quirk of our personality to various degrees of success…
“Are you going to collect those Ooshies?” a four-foot nothing girl who couldn’t have been older than eight asked me.
“No, I’m not,” I replied, both bemused and slightly annoyed.
“Can I have them?” she asked.
“Um, okay,” I replied as I called over the Woolworths attendant to give the girl her prize.
“Thanks!” she squealed before pouncing on her next unsuspecting prey at the self-serve checkout.
This is the collectables craze, and it’s not even the worst of it.
Ooshies have been connected to a black market among Woolworths staff, online trading and death threats, and a stunning decapitation live on TV.
It’s absolute madness, but it does what it’s supposed to: it brings the customers flocking and it gets them spending.
A recent Canstar Blue survey found that supermarket promotions like Woolworth’s Ooshies (and now Discovery Gardens) and Coles’ Little Shop have a major impact on consumer purchase behaviour.
The survey revealed one in five shoppers said they’d spend more at a supermarket than they otherwise would if a promotion was on offer. A further 22 per cent agreed these kinds of promotions influenced where they spent their grocery dollars.
Why do we collect?
Humans are hardwired to collect, says University of Tasmania lecturer in marketing and retail research, Dr Louise Grimmer.
“Humans have been collecting things since around the 5th or 4th Century BC. Around 30 per cent of the population collects something, and it’s especially popular with children.”
According to Grimmer, consumer behaviour theory explains why humans like to collect. “Some products become special, and therefore collectable, for many reasons, including their symbolic value, mood-altering properties or instrumental importance,” she says.
Grimmer adds when every day, seemingly mundane items become part of a collection “they transform from the profane to the sacred”.
“This special significance is often incomprehensible to the outside as it does not necessarily relate to the monetary value,” Grimmer says.
The science of it all
The basic premise behind collectables is consumers need to spend a minimum set amount, usually around $30, to receive a “blind bag” collectable. At Coles, that’s a Little Shop toy – a small plastic grocery item. At Woolworths, it was an Ooshie – a small plastic Lion King toy. Yet after facing consumer backlash on the environmental impact of the toys, Woolworths has now switched to an eco-friendlier option – Discovery Gardens – a seedling kit that allows kids (or anyone) to plant their own produce.
The key to the collectables craze? The “blind” factor. You never know what you’re going to get until you open the packaging. The blind factor is what encourages repeat purchases in the hope the next item you get will be different.
Grimmer says, “The opaque packaging of the blind bag means that people don’t know what they are going to get each time. This draws on reinforcement theory – the blind bag provides an exciting reward but reason the bag is blind is that this encourages repeat purchases.”
According to Woolworths group chief marketing officer Andrew Hicks, the move away from Lion King Ooshies to its Woolworths Discovery Garden program wasn’t just a response to consumer backlash and environmental concerns. Rather, it was an initiative that was created to not be an instant gratification promotion, but rather a program that keeps consumers engaged over weeks and months.
“We make a sharp distinction between a traditional collectable, which we ran earlier this year with The Lion King Ooshies and a program like Woolworths Discovery Garden. There’s no instant gratification with this program [Discovery Garden]. It’s a long game, so keeping everyone engaged throughout the weeks, and months, is key.”
A battle for consumer’s grocery dollars
Why do supermarkets offer collectable promotions? It comes down to one thing: competition. Collectable promotions are designed to encourage shoppers to choose a supermarket over the competition based on receiving the specific collectable item during the promotion period.
Grimmer says, “We know that during the promotion periods shoppers will often change their supermarket in order to access the collectable items. Of course, supermarkets are hoping that those ‘new’ customers will stick with the supermarket once the promotion has ended.”
Another reason supermarkets offer collectable rewards is it encourages shoppers to spend just that little bit extra.
“The minimum spend (now usually $30) to qualify for one collectable item is designed to encourage consumers to spend more each time they shop,” says Grimmer.
On the newest season of ABC’s Gruen, Campaign Edge executive creative director Dee Madigan said the collectables craze has become a “vicious cycle” of promotions that only work while the promotion is running.
“Woolworth’s does something then Coles does something and the problem with those kinds of promotions is they work only while the offer is on and then when the offer is off, it stops.
“What they don’t do is build any brand loyalty,” Madigan argues.
Woolworths’ latest promotion is much more on-brand and is more likely to achieve brand loyalty, she says.
“It’s inoculating against the accusation Woolworths is using too much plastic. Its right to Woolworths’ brands but it’s also offering long-term stuff.”
PwC’s chief creative officer Russel Howcroft agrees that Woolworths’ Discovery Garden is good for the brand, but won’t necessarily translate into profit, saying, “It reinforces the brand probably more than it gets extra sales.”
However, brand loyalty can eventually pay off and translate into future sales.
Howcroft adds: “The genius of this as a marketing promotion is the brands pay to be involved and they get to have the brands in the hands of people they know are going to be future shoppers.
“It does sound completely crazy but the kids that are collecting now are going to have a sense of loyalty to the brands they collect probably for the rest of their lives.”
Interestingly, however, not all the supermarkets are fighting to play in the collectibles space. Discount retailer ALDI said it won’t be getting in on the action, calling the tiny collectables an “unnecessary cost”.
Customer service and communications director Adrian Christie told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald it has no plans to offer the likes of collectibles or loyalty programs anytime soon.
“We are very focused on anything that adds cost and complexity that could jeopardise our business model and how we’re able to provide our prices,” said Christie.
While Woolworths and Coles are constantly trying to find new ways to attract the attention and dollars of consumers, ALDI has always been disloyal to loyalty programs.
Though Christie said a rewards program wasn’t completely off the table for the drocer, he said ALDI won’t be creating its own collectibles spin-off any time soon.
The dark side: “marketing grooming” young kids
The collectables craze is undoubtedly powerful, said Howcroft. It gets both kids and parents in-store because it taps into the childlike fascination of playing shop.
Howcroft said, “They’re fabulous pester-power and it gets parents down the aisle. This is why it works because kids have always played shop and Coles are facilitating it with brands.”
This, however, is the “dark side” of collectables, according to former adman and Gruen regular, Todd Sampson.
Speaking on Gruen, Sampson likened supermarket promotions to “marketing grooming”.
He said, “I understand a promotion works and the need to drive footfall, but the whole notion of creating little consumers feels like we’re marketing grooming young kids.”
Grimmer also compared the collectables promotion to the feeling you get when you gamble.
“If shoppers know the collectable item they are going to receive, the excitement is diminished because the outcome is certain. On the other hand, if the outcome isn’t certain, each individual blind bag has the potential for providing an immediate dopamine rush. This is the same principle that can lead to gambling addiction.”
Grimmer says the addition of the rare or scarce collectables taps into the scarcity principle, making items much more valuable.
“This type of scarcity approach can really foster strong fear of missing out in children but also in adult collectors, which I think can be worrying.”
Consumer fatigue over collectables? It’s unlikely
From Coles Little Shop to Coles Little Shop 2, to Ooshies and now the Discovery Garden promotion, you’d think Australians would tire of the collectables craze. And, while Grimmer says consumer fatigue is possible, it’s unlikely.
“A collectable promotion is exciting enough to pique consumer interest, there may well be a new craze,” she says.
Grimmer also says she doesn’t expect Woolworths latest promotion to enjoy the same success of Ooshies, but will the collectables craze ever be over? It’s unlikely, not as long as humans continue to be, well, human.
“There is an innate desire in humans to collect things and given that retailers are aware of the psychology behind our passion for collecting, we can expect to see many more of these types of promotions,” Grimmer concludes.
Now, where is my set of tea towels featuring Australia’s big things?