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In the Eye of the Beholder

Customer experience needs to be placed in the context of other important factors when we consider what drives shopping behavior.

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.

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2 responses to “In the Eye of the Beholder

  1. Thanks for this – and agree completely – there are many flaws in the myth of ‘improving customer experience’.

    As you say, it is subjective – your great experience might not be mine. the second challenge is economics: we can improve the experience but is it going to deliver an ROI? Who will pay for the extra staff, the smarter stores, the free coffee and all the digital gadgets and nonsense that proponents of CX suggest are essential for every shopper.

    Check out this post –

    The key lies in understanding who are your target shoppers and working out what they want from the experience. For many people, shopping is not a pleasang experience, and so ‘less is often more’. the growth of things such as subscriptions and convenience channels show that ‘make this painless’ is often what shoppers want – all the complexity is sometimes the opposite of what the shopper wants

  2. Thanks for the insights; the ‘goal-driven’ perspective especially resonates with me. In my experience, the ‘classical definitions’ are secondary to whether the shopper can accomplish what they set out to do or not. (This is especially apparent when comparing online to in-store experiences, but applies in each scenario). Generally, there is more opportunity to differentiate on ‘classical’ attributes if you have established an expectation of parity or superiority to competition with respect to meeting goals (although poor initial impressions may prevent the shopper from finding out how well you can meet their goals.)

    As you point out, we won’t learn much about shoppers if our research and analysis can’t adapt to their perspectives simply because we imposed our own reality on it. Too often, important learnings are missed because the research restricts the set of competitors in ways the shopper doesn’t, focuses on attributes of internal interest that the shopper would never think about, or assumes the same driver model applies across shoppers, competitors, and occasions. Too often, the research is designed as a literal extension of institutionalized research, such as brand trackers.

    The real world can be pretty messy, but order has to be found in the chaos, not imposed on it. To understand the heterogeneity you point out, a priori assumptions have to be left as hypotheses, not adopted as design elements. It also helps if the design and execution consider what each shopper wants to accomplish, a perspective that is sometimes overlooked because it may be less glamorous or more difficult to influence.

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