Holiday preparations were even more stressful this year as the world faces a steady stream of supply chain issues. From automotive to meat to pharmaceuticals, almost every industry is feeling the effects of worker strikes, shipping container shortages, stalled ships, and closed ports. Consumers are starting to understand how much effort and coordination goes into getting a product from raw materials to front doors. The veil is lifted, and it’s clearer than ever: Convenience comes at an indelible cost.
Consumer convenience has dictated the past 100-plus years of commerce. The need for convenience became apparent when women started entering the workforce in greater numbers, leading to an influx of brands with labor- and time-saving products like Tupperware in the 1940s, TV dinners in the 1950s, and Crock Pots in the 1970s.
And today, as work seeps into every moment of our lives, consumers prioritize convenience above all else. Because we’re all stretched thin with little support, time becomes our most precious commodity. But convenience-as-a-service is expensive and inaccessible to many. Those who can’t indulge are often the ones holding up the convenience economy, as packers or deliverers. They sometimes put themselves in harm’s way in the process and frequently do so without proper protections from their employers.
Convenience also plays a role in poor nutrition, excess waste, and increased emissions. These effects are at odds with the accelerating international focus on social and environmental responsibility and the consumer desire for brands to do better. We’ve reached a point of collective cognitive dissonance—how can we continue to expect uber-convenience when we know the impact that it has across so many global touchpoints?
The reality: Convenience isn’t going anywhere. So, brands must be adept at reconciling the consumer desire for convenience with the desire for better business. We already see some brands getting ahead by being creative about how they provide products and services. Etsy offsets the carbon impact of shipping. Imperfect Foods connects consumers with food that would’ve otherwise been wasted. Olive is rethinking home delivery packaging altogether in order to reduce trash from online shopping. This is the direction we should all be moving.
Brands, too, are getting less and less out of the narrative of convenience. When every company employs a direct-to-consumer business model and delivers on convenience, it becomes a requirement rather than a differentiator. Ironically, brands may be losing their potency in this frantic rat race for the very thing they believe will put them at the top.
Yet, convenience is still an aspiration for many companies because consumers have come to expect it. It’s become a cultural norm. From the way we travel (Uber and Lyft), to the way we shop (Amazon, Instacart, and Grove Collaborative), to the errands we run (Taskrabbit and Fivver), to the way we get medication (Capsule, Ritual, Care/of), to the way we find love (Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge). It’s hard to find a space that hasn’t been swallowed up and simplified by the promise of convenience.
Entire brands have been built around convenience, but without another pillar to stand on and with a field of competitors also pursuing a DTC model, they get lost in the mix. Blue Apron, for example, was a strong initial entrant to the meal kit space, but as the marketplace got more crowded, it struggled to remain dominant. Convenience alone can’t define a successful brand. But what will?
On top of social and environmental damage and brand decay, convenience has also stripped a lot of human societies of things that used to define us. When we outsource every element of our lives, we lose the ability to be self-sufficient and creative. Uber Eats is convenient, but now we don’t need to learn how to cook. Google Maps can be a lifesaver, but now we never have to remember where anything is. Skills we once relied on for survival are no longer in our repertoires.
But craft and convenience can happily coexist. And brands can make craft more accessible by adding convenience as an extra layer rather than focusing on it as the whole package. The aforementioned meal kit industry taps into this convenience-and-craft combination well, enabling consumers to learn in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming or intimidating. Masterclass and Fender Play use on-demand digital content to teach us new skills we wouldn’t have otherwise have the time or money to learn. Nordstrom’s Trunk Club sends hand-selected clothing to customers and encourages them to understand and expand their personal styles.
Convenience can be a facilitator of empowerment and experimentation. And brands can utilize this to bolster their own identities.
So, will brands remain negligent on the consequences of convenience? History has already shown us just what can happen when convenience becomes king. And with the supply chain issues looming, there’s even more of an urgency for brands to provide value beyond just convenience.
Alain is Founder and CEO of SYLVAIN, a strategy and design consultancy that provokes progress for companies, people, and society at large.