Life was easier back then

Go back a decade and the ‘corporates’ were only getting started, so independent optometrists only had to contend with local competitors either down the street on in the next suburb. You worked out where you wanted to fit in the market and what type of patient you wanted and went about running your business.Life was easy and we all lived happily ever after!We can debate how to accurately define terms like upper, middle and lower class but basically all products and services fitted into one of these three generally defined consumer categories. I have come to realise, though, that these days, there are pretty much only two types of customers – not three.{{quote-A:R-W:450-Q: Consumers now face an oversupply of products in a larger number of categories, all available from a wider selection of stores. }}This newfound view came about while I was shopping for an ordinary pair of football boots a few years ago. The footy season was about to start and my son had grown out of last year’s boots. When I visited some sports stores they were filled with the latest ranges from the famous brands; however, I noticed something most peculiar – stores either had cheap footy boots or very expensive models, but almost nothing in the middle.“Do you have anything in between this $50 pair and those $250 boots?” I asked. Invariably, the answer was no, and I assumed it was because the store had sold out of the mid-ranged styles.To my surprise, I was told that anything between those price-points didn’t sell, or at least not in enough numbers to warrant the store holding the stock. Parents wanted either cheap boots for little Johnny or really expensive ones.It was the same for the older guys and more serious players: low-end or high-end styles sold but the mid-range didn’t. Considering my son’s footy ability, I bought the cheaper pair knowing they wouldn’t suffer too much from the wear and tear of kicking the ball … if you catch my drift!Ever since then I’ve been intrigued about this change in the middle market and how it affects small, independent businesses such as optometrists and other specialists.A contracting middle market, along with the rise in internet shopping, has contributed to the ‘conflicted consumer’ – someone who would willingly trade up, purchasing higher-value its as a treat in some areas, while trading down in other areas to ease their conscience or bank balance.Today, this new consumer behaviour means anyone trading in the middle market finds thselves grappling with a continually shifting consumer mindset, which is causing a squeeze from both the prium and value ends. The old norm has changed. Welcome to the new norm, a place where confusion abounds and no one lives happily ever after.Some experts believe the enormous increase in choice has also contributed to this shift. Consumers now face an oversupply of products in a larger number of categories, all available from a wider selection of stores. Don’t forget to add the new norm of internet shopping with its vast array of new shopping ‘models’.Is it any wonder a confused retail market exists where the once safe middle market stood? There are many examples of mid-market retailers being squeezed at both ends – think Myer – and while I think optometrists are in an almost unique position to differentiate their businesses from competitors and competing categories, they are not totally immune to a shifting market.I am not sure the middle market will ever totally disappear, though I do believe it has severely contracted as my footy boots example suggests, and, as mentioned above, I have my own theory about consumers. While I think there will always be three distinct markets, I believe we are heading towards only two types of consumers: those who are cash rich and time poor; and those who are time rich and cash poor.The question is: can you successfully target both simultaneously?

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