Selling to the Poors

Libertarians hold dear the idea of the uberman consumer, the hyperrational, fully formed autonomous being that springs from the womb to take good decisions in the marketplace. But when one reads marketing literature, a different consumer is encountered. Often this consumer is an object to be manipulated; one who holds totally irrational ideas that must be shaped or corrected; one that has to be acclimated to changes, and managed to prevent revolt.

One also encounters shockingly frank discussions of consumers’ lack of sophistication in the literature. This brings me to an article in Monday’s Wall Street Journal Report on marketing. It was written by Madhubalan Viswanathan, Jose Rosa, and Julie Ruth, marketing professors at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Wyoming, and Rutgers (respectively).

This article discusses the problem of selling to indigent, low-literacy consumers in third world countries. The authors explain that 14% of the American public is functionally illiterate, thus, a major segment of US consumers is also described. How can retailers put this vulnerable group of consumers at ease, help them process product prices and discounts, and help them understand value? This group faces challenges unimaginable in our lives. I would love to paste the entire article. Here are some highlights:


One of the key observations we made is that low-literacy consumers have difficulty with abstract thinking. These individuals tend to group objects by visualizing concrete and practical situations they have experienced. They exhibited what science would call a low grasp of abstract categories — tools, cooking utensils or protein-rich foods, for example — which suggests low-literacy consumers may have difficulty understanding advertising and store signs that position products that way…

Scientists, what is a low grasp of abstract categories? Aren’t these categories socially constructed? (The authors do hint at this.)

It continues!

One of the most potentially detrimental results of concrete thinking, however, is the difficulty that low-literacy consumers have with performing price/volume calculations. They tend to choose products based solely on the lowest posted price or smallest package size, even when they have sufficient resources for a larger purchase, because they have difficulty estimating the longevity and savings that come from buying in larger volumes. Some base purchase decisions on physical package size, instead of reported volume content, or on the quantity of a particular ingredient — such as fat, sodium or sugar — but without allowing for the fact that acceptable levels of an ingredient can vary across product categories or package size.

This observation presents major public policy implications. If a large segment of consumers are challenged by basic price/volume calculations, evaluating secondary characteristics of products would be next to impossible for them. How can one obtain informed consent with these populations on any number of transactions–from computer licenses to privacy policies and credit card agreements?


We found that low-literacy consumers spend so much time and mental energy on what many of us can do quickly and with little thought that they have little time to base purchase decisions on anything other than surface attributes such as size, color or weight.


When shopping in unfamiliar stores, some low-literacy consumers will choose products at random, buying the first brand they see once they locate a desired product category or aisle. Others simply walk through the store, choosing items that look attractive based on factors such as packaging colors or label illustrations, without regard to whether they even need the product.

The article concludes with a series of recommendations on how to reduce unease among this population, and help them better understand discounts and what they are purchasing. If you have a subscription to the Journal, it’s worth a read. I’m fascinated by it, both as someone trying to understand consumer challenges, but also because of its description of the unuberman consumer.