28 Jan The Catch-22 of Convenience
The Cult of Convenience…is it a Good Thing?
Convenience has stealthily become one of the most pervasive and least studied or understood purchase drivers of the 21st century. For Millennials and up-and-coming Gen Z, it is quite simply one of the most important considerations in product and service selection.
I suppose we should begin by defining ‘convenience’ through the lens of consumer purchase consideration. In that context, convenience is a more efficient and easier way of performing personal tasks.
The relentless drive to make our lives easier and conserve precious hours and minutes for things we really want to do – as opposed to things we have to do – has transformed the innocuous notion of convenience into one of the supreme decision-making factors powering the modern economy. Interestingly, this has not triggered a wave of scientific and behavioral studies on convenience as would be expected with other consumer trends.
As a marketer, I pay attention to what consumers are doing. And this new cult of convenience is creating some pretty interesting purchasing patterns that are often completely counter to consumers’ stated values and ideals.
For instance, many consumers no longer do the thing they claim to ‘prefer’ because convenience trumps their actual preference. “I would prefer to have a curated, eclectic wardrobe that reflects my individuality, but due to the time and effort required to shop in boutiques, I have a canned wardrobe from H&M” or “I would prefer to eat a truly healthy salad I made at home, but due to the time required to source and prep fresh ingredients, I will eat this fast food salad that has as many calories as a cheeseburger.”
Convenience has made us consider some traditional options for chores, shopping, and banking simply unthinkable. Once you have started depositing checks on your mobile phone, driving to the bank to hand a human a paper check for $70 seems absurd. And once you have had Instacart bring you groceries for a few extra bucks, the act of spending an hour in a grocery store picking out and paying for every item becomes an exercise in drudgery.
As Tim Wu noted in an op-ed piece on convenience last year, “For all its influence as a shaper of individual decisions, the greater power of convenience may arise from decisions made in aggregate, where it is doing so much to structure the modern economy.” (great podcast with Tim Wu HERE)
Americans historically (and vocally) claim to value choice, support underdogs, and appreciate competition. But convenience, by nature, is more allied with megalithic monopolies than with a thriving small business community.
Here’s how it goes: As Google gets bigger and more powerful, Google can enable better ease of use through economies of scale and habituation, and it becomes ever more logical to use Google.
It’s a vicious cycle that erodes other values we claim to hold dear, such as overcoming challenges, craftsmanship, hard work, and yes, even freedom.
Convenience is all about the end result, ignoring the inherent value of the journey.
Given its rising status as one of our new communal ideals, the value and cost of convenience is worth a deeper look. What is this fixation on the “fastest and easiest” doing to us as a culture?
Birthed in the early 20th century through labor-saving industrial innovations and ‘convenience items’ for the home such as washing machines and frozen dinners, convenience was billed as a solution to drudgery that would liberate us to pursue leisure time, hobbies, and charity. It would bring the ability to “cultivate self” to the masses in a way that was previously only accessible to the upper echelons of society.
I work a lot. Agencies are not conducive to 9-to-5 hours or turning off (yikes!). I cleaned my house yesterday and it was a joy. Squirting, smearing and shining… turning off my brain…enjoying the instant gratification of a sweet-smelling, ordered living space. It was a really good use of a Saturday, in terms of my mental health and enjoyment of the weekend.
The Utopian dream of perfect convenience promises a “Jetsons-style” life where moving walkways eliminate the grind of walking, a robot cleans our house, and hot food shows up magically with no effort from us. The struggle of daily life recedes and is replaced with time to contemplate the human struggle for meaning.
But is that really what is playing out? Is bringing the efficiency and automation of the factory to everyday life a healthy choice? Is physical work, or having some time consumed in mundane tasks, really so horrible?
Funny coincidence, but as I was sitting here writing this blog, my 24-year-old daughter noted that “Amazon has really upped its game on delivery notifications! Now you can even see which stop the van with your package is at, so you know exactly when you will get your stuff.”
See what I mean?
Who would go to a local mom-and-pop shop to pick up one or two items when you can track your stuff on the highway as it makes its way to your door?
I’m not here to pronounce the right outcome of the convenience war. It will ultimately be an unconscious decision we make collectively over decades. But this obsession with convenience over everything else has the potential to create a bland, Orwellian future world where we all purchase from the same few companies, wear the same clothes, eat the same food, and consume the same media. A landscape of clones where things sure happen fast, but all the eccentricity, vibrancy, and even healthy annoyance have been extracted from life – leaving a shell we no longer know how to infuse with art, music, friendship, and purpose.
We’ll see where the cult of convenience takes us as a society – but it might be a place we don’t like. The convenient path may lead to an oligopolistic business landscape dominated by a handful of global players wielding unprecedented, unchecked power over our selections, pricing and daily lives.
At the end of the day, convenience means conformity.
Is that a price you are willing to pay?