COUNTRY LIVING ENTHUSIASTS: ACTIVE, CONNECTED CONSUMERS
by Susan Spaulding
The focus of part one of the "country living" series was the definition and size of this market segment as well as key demographics and lifestyle characteristics of those who make up this group. This article focuses on using this knowledge to build and develop marketers' brand relationships with this growing consumer group.
The study conducted by Market Directions focuses on technology and media habits, shopping habits and purchasing interests in conjunction with the market size, demographics and lifestyle analysis covered in the May issue. To recap, the study contains both primary and secondary components. The primary component includes input from more than 800 individuals recruited from counties with a high incidence of country living folks, while the secondary component analyzes data from a variety of government and industry sources.
Individuals living in rural areas to take advantage of the lifestyle it offers typically have full-time off-farm jobs. Most of these professions require traveling to work, with a minority of these individuals able to telecommute. More than 25 percent drive over 20 miles to their place of employment. These individuals may spend a number of hours each week on the road and live a considerable distance from a city, but they are using technology to remain very connected.
Continued technology enhancements are making living in the country while holding a job in a city or suburb more achievable than ever. Today work can be accomplished from a distance, whereas work in the past required on-site employees. In 2004, 8.1 million Americans telecommuted, up 84 percent from 2003. This trend toward telecommuting is moving into rural areas as more communities offer broadband Internet access. The Bush administration's "Broadband Community Connect" program has funded more than $30 million in grants to rural communities through the USDA. The program's goal is for all rural communities to have broadband access by 2007.
Whether the time they spend is related to the prevalence of dial-up connections in many rural communities today or simple interest in the Internet, rurapolitans spend a significant number of hours browsing or surfing the Internet each week. Usage of e-mail and instant messaging also is common, and wireless phone usage is high. In short, being connected is a priority and technology offers a number of options for those seeking a rural lifestyle.
A variety of media play a role in the daily lives of country living folks. In addition to Internet usage, watching television and listening to the radio are common activities. The study shows that preferred programs relate to local communities and individual lifestyles. In addition, magazine choices tie directly to personal lifestyle and interests. Demographic and lifestyle variables such as income, the amount of time living in the country and gender also influence media usage. For example, those who have lived in the country longer watch more TV than those who are newer to the lifestyle. Variances in length of time living in the country are also somewhat reflected in hobbies and interests, leading to differences in media usage.
Shopping habits of those who have moved to the country from a city or suburb often reflect that city or suburban background. Shopping packaged goods stores, such as Sam's and Costco, even traveling a distance to get there in order to "stock up" on items that can be purchased in bulk, is common. In addition, retailers that were historically found only in cities and suburbs, such as Home Depot and Lowe's, are expanding into smaller communities. Various home improvement retailers, Wal-Mart, farm and home retailers, and hardware retailers make up the primary retail mix.
Shopping frequently incorporates multiple channels. Even though the majority of purchases are made at physical retail sites, these individuals also are very active online shoppers. In addition to making online purchases, this segment uses the Internet to research products, while actual purchases often take place in retail stores or dealerships. Interestingly, the incidence of catalog shopping for lifestyle-related products is somewhat lower than for online shopping. Furthermore, when they consider financial products and services, multiple channels also are common. For example, more than half of study participants use online banking.
Regardless of the channel, service is a key element of the sale. Since purchases are frequently tied to interests and hobbies, finding the right product is the purchasing driver rather than cost consciousness. Also, familiar brands simplify purchasing choices and reduce the buyer's perceived risks. Therefore, the combination of familiar brands with retailer expertise can increase confidence when these people make purchasing choices.
Supporting their country lifestyle drives many purchases. Regardless of the income level, maintenance and improvement of homes and property are priorities. Where country residents shop and specific purchases are driven somewhat by income level, but the length of time one has lived in the country and, in some cases, gender are also factors.
Specific interests and hobbies also drive a large number of related purchases. As noted earlier, horse ownership is much higher within this population than in the general population. Horse ownership at its very basic level requires feed, a barn, fencing, veterinary services and more. However, for those actively embracing participation in horse-related activities, additional product and service needs such as riding lessons, assorted tack gear, a trailer (pulled by a pickup, of course!), event participation fees, dues and subscriptions, among other things, are included in pursuit of this hobby.
Gardening is another popular hobby. In fact, gardening ranks among the top three hobbies for country living folks. Those for whom gardening is a hobby may start small, but gardening enthusiasts will purchase a wide range of products to support their hobby. These may include plants and seeds, assorted gardening tools, fertilizer, mulch, pest control products, equipment such as garden tractors, wheelbarrows, carts and tillers, gardening storage, decorative garden accessories, gardening organization dues and publication subscriptions.
These consumers' different needs relate to both product and service needs as well as their customer service expectations. For example, products are often scaled down to fit the typical rural acreages, which are somewhat smaller than traditional farms. In addition, women play a more significant role in residential/lifestyle farms than they do in traditional farms. The significance of women as purchasers and users of products highlights a variety of desirable product modifications, such as smaller sizes and different packaging. In addition to product alterations, country living folks frequently require a different type and level of service. A consultative sales approach with knowledgeable and personable sales staff is beneficial, especially for those who are relatively new to the lifestyle. Beyond expertise, increasing store hours also accommodates those with full-time off-farm jobs.
Tractor Supply is one retailer that has made addressing the purchasing interests of this population central to its business. Less than one-third of Tractor Supply's customers are traditional farmers. In fact, its customer base closely reflects the country living lifestyle consumer. The company's value proposition clearly addresses customer-driven assortments, superior customer service with seasoned advice, and convenient locations and hours — all elements of interest to country living folks. Tractor Supply's 2004 sales increase of more than 18 percent indicates it is being rewarded for this focus.
When quantifying the extent of the rural lifestyle group's purchasing power, consider that, on average, more than $2,000 is spent annually on a wide variety of products and services in support of this lifestyle. Taken across 1.6 million farms this totals more than $3 billion.
Country living consumers bring a number of positive factors to a potential brand relationship. Specifically, they bring a variety of specific interests and needs, motivation to invest in their lifestyle, and income levels that support their purchases. Brands that successfully build relationships with these consumers bring products and services that fulfill the needs and support the lifestyle, use marketing communications with on-target messages directed toward the preferred media and provide a multi-channel purchasing environment with knowledgeable and helpful staff. Given the desirability of familiar products, those brands that have formed relationships with these consumers prior to their making this lifestyle choice are presented with the opportunity to extend brand relationships with products and services that address the needs of this growing market segment. AM
Susan Spaulding is president of Market Directions Inc., a Kansas City, Mo.-based firm with brand-building expertise and experience in agribusiness and related products and services.