Know your consumer

April 08, 1996

For years, Ford Motor Company boasted a car that ranked among America's
top sellers: the Taurus. Then, with the introduction of the 1996 model, Ford
unveiled an all-new Taurus. The initial market reaction: the price is too high
and the design too radical for the Middle America buyers who fueled the car's
past success.

While Ford may yet find a way to woo buyers to the new Taurus, the disappointing first response from consumers demonstrates the high stakes involved in so many of the products conceived by design engineers and others on development teams. In the case of the Taurus, some analysts say that Ford failed to appreciate the financial squeeze on middle-income families, as well as a trend toward more conservative tastes in an aging population.

American Demographics magazine recently cited prime population benchmarks that product teams should note as America moves deeper into the '90s:

- Growth in the number of households is slowing to a rate of 1% a year, versus 1.7% in the '80s.

- Householders aged 45 to 54 are now the fastest growing segment, while households headed by people 35 or under are declining.

- American households are becoming increasingly diverse. Married couples are a bare majority of U.S. families, and only about one third of households have any children under 18.

- Income pressures continue on Middle America. The share of aggregate household income earned by the middle 60% of households has shrunk from 52% in 1973 to 48% in 1993. Meanwhile, the share going to the top 20% climbed from 44% to 48%.

- Despite long-term gains in college enrollments, less than a quarter of adults over age 25 have a four-year degree. However, the income disparity between college graduates and non-degreed adults is getting bigger. Another trend: rapid growth in people with two-year technical degrees.

- Temporary workers are increasing, as firms minimize the number of full-time employees receiving health-care and other benefits.

- With less security in the workplace, consumers may grow more cautious about purchases and demand more money-back guarantees on products.

If your development team is not tracking such trends as these, you run the risk of missing the mark on your next new product. Take the time to know your consumer.

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