Editor’s Intro: Customer experience is a critical topic for most companies, as they recognize that providing the best experience they can has important business implications. What constitutes “optimal” customer experience, though, and how that experience should interact with other factors, is not so simple, as Steve Needel ably discusses.
We’ve all heard the proverb that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and we take it to mean that this evaluation is subjective and egocentric – what I find beautiful may not be what you find beautiful. Yet weekly, I come across blogs talking about how retailers can or must “up” their customer experience, which is also subjective and egocentric; what’s a great customer experience to me may not be a great customer experience to you.
We suspect there are elements that are common across most of our perceptions. A store that smells bad (spoilage, as opposed to weird – hello H-Mart), is physically dirty (hello A&P and Aldi in its early days here), and nasty sales people/check-out clerks (you know who you are) can all contribute to our thumbs-down rating. The converse is also likely to be true – a nice scent as one enters, clean and well-lit aisles, and friendly folk along the way can be a real positive.
Going back to my grad school days, my research showed that giving shoppers some measure of control in a stressful environment improved the experience (shopping in the school bookstore). Signage, consistency of location, consistency of stock, and lots of helpful people made the experience much better. We’ve seen these principles applied in countless articles on improving retail.
So yesterday I spent time in the exception to the rule – I went to Costco. Here’s a store where cleanliness is not next to godliness, where the clientele is the kind that gets made fun of in photos from Walmart (multiplied by 10 times as many people in a store at one time), there is little-to-no help on the floor, the assortment changes from week-to-week, and checkout lines are ridiculously long. We waited 15 minutes in the self-checkout line (by far the fastest moving) and another 10 minutes in the gas line (to save thirty cents a gallon). All while the residual from my $1.50 hot dog and drink was working its way through my system.
And yet, if you had asked me that afternoon about my experience at Costco, I would have told you about the great prices I found, how the Kirkland brand makes really good low-priced wine (Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc in particular – $6.99), how the hot dog was pretty tasty going down, and how my wife finds yoga pants that look good, last long, and are a third the price of other stores.
Human behavior is, generally speaking, goal-driven and shopping tends to fit nicely into that conception. The goal may be browsing to see what’s new, it may be finding a specific item, it may be a stock-up trip; it doesn’t matter what the reason behind the goal is – there is a goal. The achievement of that goal is going to be paramount in the evaluation of the experience; make it easier for me to achieve my goal and I’m happier. Make it less expensive to achieve my goal and I’m happier. Let me choose to trade-off some happiness factors (convenience, selection) for some unhappiness factors (long lines, difficult layout) in order to save a ton of money and I’m happier.
For all we talk about ideal stores or amazing our shoppers or the shift to online shopping, remember that there are 85 million Costco members who regularly make this trade-off. By classical definitions, their experiences should be rated poor, yet they obviously are not. We need to pay attention to this.
When we study shopping behavior, we need to understand whether experience (and it’s distant relative, engagement) is important or not and how it is important. We need to understand how the shopper defines the experience and not try to fit it into a one-size-fits-all formula. We need to recognize that most retail environments have shopper heterogeneity and therefore the customer experience will be fundamentally different for different segments; you can’t define a Walmart shopper, but you can define groups of Walmart shoppers. When we are comparing retailers, we need to recognize experience may be the wrong dimension. In Retailwire, a daily blog where I’m allowed to comment, we often see people trying to compare Walmart to Wegman’s to Trader Joe’s; you can’t compare those on customer experience because what they offer is a different experience.
We need to figure out what the experience is, how to measure that experience, and how to relate that measurement to shopping behavior, all without an a priori assumption that the experience is relevant to the shopping behavior. As researchers, we need to be careful not to insert our own prejudices or preconceptions about experiences into our study of shoppers.