The warning to “improve the retail experience for shoppers” often puts me in mind of the cliché about weather: “Everyone talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.”
Specific reasons for the lack of progress on the retail experience landscape are undoubtedly as many and as diverse as the types of retailers in the mall. Yet I suspect they all come down to the industry’s over-arching reliance on price promotion and its consequent margin erosion. Monies that might otherwise be invested to genuinely enhance the retail experience are sunk into Buy-One-Get-Ones. The industry’s reliance on the reliability of a downward price spiral to make the numbers ignores a profound (and profitable) consumer truth: The emotional promise of shopping is invaluable.
When I wrote “Shopportunity!,” I worked with a business colleague to mine the meaning of shopping as a powerful form of human engagement. We hypnotized (yes hypnotized) consumers and asked them to tell us three stories about their shopping experiences: their first, their most powerful and their most recent.
This technique, which we’ve used in a wide variety of categories, allows us to eradicate the static that we hear in a more typical focus group setting. Using hypnosis, we regress participants back in time to capture memories they would not normally be able to recall, distracted as they usually are about where they parked, when they’ll get paid and if their bosses noticed that they left work a bit early.
Hypnosis is highly personal. Sally can’t have the same memory that Tom does. Each person shares her or his own experience and we listen for commonalities as well as variations. The first memory and most powerful memory bring up the perplexities and personal resonances that shopping brings. Imagine, if you could remember, the first time you entered a department store as a child, perhaps in a stroller, and were confronted with the sights, sounds and confusing profusion of goods.
Now think about the most powerful experience you have had in a retail setting. Typically these are memories described in terms of a successful quest: a full-on Odyssey in which the shopper is hero of her/his own saga; the store staff is cast as confident confidante.
The most recent memory typically showcases the so-steep-it-gives-me-a-nosebleed fall from the hope and promise of the most powerful experience to the disappointing reality of today’s retail environment. Tragic, really, to hear about discounted merchandise, horribly displayed, MIA staff, and shoppers being treated as incipient criminals trying to gain entry to filthy fitting rooms.
Four Easy Pieces
And yet, and yet. The promise is still there trapped inside the diminished experience. Why? Because when retail really delivers, shopping delivers an emotional wallop for both women and men. The compass points of the ideal experience are the same for everyone. The APPA (Anticipation, Pursuit, Prominence, and Appreciation) process deconstructs how shopping can provide an emotional connection with customers.
- First, there’s genuine Anticipation. Shoppers imagine what their lives will be like once they have acquired the object of their quest. They anticipate what will it feel like to be the new owner of their coveted desires: improved, cooler, more confident, taller, less bald, stylish with the right bag, suit, shoes, and smarter with a KitchenAid mixer, computer, or cellphone.
- Then, there is the Pursuit. Once they have fully engaged in the quest, they typically do an exhaustive search: online, they ask their friends, they go to the shops and try it on, they try it out, test drive it. It is during the Pursuit phase that retail lets them down.
- Shopping is complex and intertwined with cultural mores and judgments. Shoppers are searching for a sense of personal meaning. They want corroboration that their acquisitions matter, that their decisions matter. We call this moment Prominence. Now think of the typical shopping experience: Are we delivering that sense of significance? No, we are not.
- The fourth state of a great shopping experience is Appreciation. Not in the superficial “Oh! You look great!” sense, although that’s definitely uplifting. I’m talking more in the financial meaning of the word “appreciation.” The object becomes more valuable, more precious, more rarified over time, because they have taken the time and spent the resources to purchase it. They appreciate their ownership.
The archetypal examples of great shopping experiences differ between women and men, but hey, what doesn’t? For women, the ideal experience is best embodied by shopping for their wedding dress. Think of the Anticipation since she first saw Cinderella or perused her parent’s wedding album. The Pursuit becomes real when she agrees to marry and becomes engaged. The Prominence is perfectly delivered by the wonderfully knowledgeable sales and alteration professionals, the attractive fitting rooms with perfect lighting and offers of Champagne, all coupled with the admiring audience of her mother, sisters and maid of honor in attendance. The Appreciation comes years later when she releases the dress from its heirloom garment bag and shares it with her daughters, regaling them with the stories, and launching them into their own journey of Anticipation.
For men, the exact same syntax prevails. His archetypal quest was for the first car. He anticipated it since he played with Matchbox versions. He pursued it once his father agreed, gaining a sense of his own prominence when the used car salesman negotiated with him (and his father). He knows that exact car has appreciated in value, because he has been watching its price on eBay. Most likely he bemoans what might have been if he’d “only put it up on blocks” instead of selling it when he moved on from that car-version of himself.
Typically, women and men don’t talk about the importance of a good deal when they describe their powerful shopping experiences. They do say they don\’t want to feel dumb about paying too much. When the APPA shopping syntax doesn’t exist, then price becomes the default emotional setting. Price gauges a shopper’s savvy. If value is the only conquest, price makes them feel smart, having gamed a system they view as rigged against them. They settle for not paying “stupid money” in lieu of having an emotional connection to the shopping experience, forfeiting the rewards of APPA.
What does the value approach mean for retailers? It means a focus on Prominence. That’s the piece of the retail experience the retailer can credibly use to deliver meaning plus margin.
But from a broader perspective, ask yourself the tough question: Do my customers feel significant when they shop my shop? Shop your own store. How do you feel? Take it a step further. Ask your customers to tell you how they describe shopping your store. Watch out if you hear words like invisible, harried, harassed, ignored. You might hear them try to salvage the bad experience with, “but I got a good deal.” Is that what you want to be known for? It’s a fair approach if you are a value retailer with a utilitarian approach. But if you see yourself offering an authentic, meaningful retail experience, being celebrated for “cheap” puts you squarely in the race to the bottom. That image doesn’t promote Anticipation, Prominence or Appreciation.
Under hypnosis as well as wide-awake, people want to emerge elevated or transformed by the experience of shopping with you.
But I want to go even further. The best shopping experiences in a consumer culture and economy such as ours aren’t experiences at all: They are enchantments.
Enchantment comes from moments transcendent from the rough and tumble of daily life. Enchantment is transformative. The shopper can realize a moment that reflects their idea of a better self, their anticipated self, their dreamed self when they are enchanted.
But we can’t deliver enchantment as a one-off and then congratulate ourselves about it. Let’s stop making our shoppers nuts. Trust they want to be treated as significant. Know that they enjoy all stages of APPA. What if we created retail enchantments to delightfully deliver on that crazy promise all the time?