Consumer Corner: What were they thinking? It's a mystery when it comes to buying weird stuff

By MARCELLA S. KREITER  |  March 27, 2011 at 4:30 AM
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CHICAGO, March 27 (UPI) -- What makes people buy the things they do? Big-Mouth Billy Bass anyone?

It's anyone's guess, says Cele Otnes, a professor of business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She says there's no reason to assume there's a rational process involved in the purchase process, especially when it comes to outlandish items.

Some experts say it's the feel-good factor that is paramount.

Perry Reynolds of the International Housewares Association would credit design. In an interview during the recent International Housewares Association trade show, Reynolds said manufacturers are getting more creative to lure consumers.

"Design doesn't need to be expensive," Reynolds said. "Things look, handle and feel better."

With people eating more meals at home, the focus is on freshening the basics. Colors pop. Small appliances are made to work more like their commercial counterparts (think the pod coffeemakers that brew the perfect espresso).

"Design is a key purchase factor," Reynolds said.

A lot of the new items on display at the housewares show this year were beautiful versions of common things, be they pots or appliances. Another niche was miniaturized items geared to children -- utensils with stalks of broccoli or carrots as handles, for example.

"Quality is a game-changer again," said Tom Mirabile of Lifetime Brands. "As we look at things having to last longer … investment in an item, quality is such a huge part of the value equation."

And then there's the stuff on infomercials: Billy Bass, Snugglies, ShamWow -- the urge to be hip by owning a piece of pop culture sometimes outweighs people's better judgment.

Otnes said the breathless pitchmen on late-night television reel in consumers by encouraging them to think they're in on some kind of cultural joke. Take the Bass-o-Matic -- oh wait, that was a "Saturday Night Live!" routine.

"Consumers decide to buy this stuff because it signals that they're in on the cultural joke, that they get that tackiness stems from silliness and a mass cultural understanding of boundaries," she said in a recent university release. "These are not high-class objects; people buy them so other people can laugh with them and at this goofy stuff. So there's a winking irony to it, this flaunting of tackiness."

And the economy doesn't to seem to have an impact on sales of the goofy stuff. Otnes said the whole gift-giving ritual is an irrational process and there's something endearing about kitsch.

"There are interesting boundaries between kitsch and trash," Otnes said. "Bobblehead dolls can be kitsch or trash, depending on the quality. Trash can be stuff that's maybe a little bit kitschy but you know in the back of your mind probably won't last."

She said the upcoming marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton in Britain is spawning its own industry.

"With the upcoming royal wedding, people are once again going berserk, so expect to see an outpouring of royal-themed products ranging of varying quality," Otnes said.

But there is a fine line between kitsch and trash -- the former inspire collections that expand the joke while the latter is garage-sale fodder within weeks, Otnes said.

And kitsch can be expensive.

"The lower the prices, the more people look at something as trash," she said. "The signals that retailers send help consumers determine which category a product is in. So there are fluid boundaries that really depend on consumers' perspectives, and it's useful for marketers to understand what kind of landscape they're aiming for. …

"Just look at the seasonal products big-box retailers sell before holidays. They just figure that consumers are in a buying frenzy, and that they're receptive to buying, say, a life-size, animatronic jack-o'-lantern in the weeks leading up to Halloween. Never mind that it will just be collecting dust in the garage for the other 50 weeks of the year."

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