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Thursday, January 03, 2008

In Search Of An Experience

My article on 'In search of an experience' from the 11/12/2007 issue of FCW.

a. An event or a series of events participated in or lived through.
b. The totality of such events in the past of an individual or group.

There's so much talk about experience, but what does it really mean? We yearn for experiences. Our consumers are no different. Increasingly, it’s what we routinely encounter shopping for groceries at Whole Foods Market, ordering java at Starbucks, celebrating a birthday party at American Girl Place or banking at WaMu.

According to Pine and Gilmore, authors of The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage, experience is the sum total of every interaction a consumer has with your store before, during and after the transaction, the sum total of an individual’s perception [i.e., how that customer feels about you] of your organization. It's based on all the direct and indirect interactions she has with you.

Turn that around and experience becomes our opportunity to affect a customer’s perception and feeling by altering or gently manipulating every aspect of an encounter with us [virtual or real] to establish a positive relationship. Talk about effective.

No matter where in that customer’s life cycle she is, her interactions with you must be memorable, delightful, inspiring and repeatable. Buying goods or services from you goes beyond physical ownership to a realm where emotions reign supreme, creating something priceless and completely disassociated from commodity.

That means that your store can’t just offer any old ho-hum experience. Your store has to literally jump off the sidewalk and capture customers’ imaginations and curiosity, drawing them into your store. They emerge wanting to return again and again. They tell everyone they know about the experience you offer. They participate in a long term relationship filled with a multitude of transactions and interactions, possibly even joining a community of impassioned believers in your unique experience. Think Harley-Davidson or Apple.

As consumers, we are time-starved. We multi-task, over-schedule ourselves, and stress-out. We yearn for simplifying solutions and delightful experiences as we become intolerant of borderline service, inadequate products and uninspired retail environments. With so many options online and off, we call the shots.

Our most critical consumer decision-makers – women, making or influencing more than 85 percent of the purchase decisions – want value, quality and substance, with flair. They look for it in engaging, respectful, and fashionable retail environments. If they don’t find it, they walk away and share that disappointment with others.

Furthermore, for the first time ever, we live in a society where the majority of the population is over forty. People over 40 have basic needs taken care of. With more disposable income than when they were younger, they’ve accumulated quite a lot of stuff, which means they become pickier about how to spend hard-earned income. They won’t waste it on a lousy experience. Instead, they want to learn from the interaction; it should be the basis for something unexpected, unusual, uplifting and generally positive that engages emotions and senses.

Pine and Gilmore explain that our economy has progressed beyond raw materials, beyond goods, and beyond service to become experience-based. Competing on price being no longer an option, the only way to differentiate ourselves is through the experience we offer.

Aren’t you living Pine & Gilmore’s "The Experience Economy?" I am. I resent stepping foot into an uninspired retail store. I loathe dirty, sloppy and cluttered environments. Surly attitudes make me run in the other direction. I expect perfect product options at a fair price, and I demand convenience. My expectations are high, and, if I can’t find what I need in your store, I know exactly where to go instead - the Internet - or, I’ll simply pass.

Our basic survival needs have been dispatched. We no longer make cakes from scratch; forget cake mixes, and bakeries are somewhat passé. I may choose [or I may not] to offer my child a full birthday ‘experience.’ It will be memorable, unique and totally focused on her. So what if it costs $300 rather than $1. After all, my little girl will only be little once.

Unfortunately, our flooring store experience hasn’t kept up. Ours is about a raw material or goods economy experience, focused on the lowest price available. We tout features and benefits when she searches for the means to creating a beautiful and fashionable home.

How might we offer an ‘experience’ instead? Well, we need to go beyond price, beyond goods as commodity, and beyond service to the totality of her interactions with our store. She’s searching for that experience; let’s create it for her.

Hat tip to Jim Aaron from CCA Global University for the inspiration.

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