We have been obsessed. Obsessed with speed, efficiency and optimisation. Removing as many barriers to purchase as possible. Making things as intuitive and easy to use as we can. Squeezing every last drop of performance out of our sites and code. This has been a noble and great quest. It has led to many more successful and straightforward purchases. But along the way, we’ve lost something. Something significant and joyful. Shopping has become too quick. Some of the pleasure has dropped in the need for speed. It’s time for a change.

Much to the chagrin of anti-shoppers the world over, shopping is about to take more time than before, not less. For certain goods, there is a correlation between the time spent choosing and the gratification associated with the purchase. Some purchases benefit from some significant agony of choice. Before we dive into the specifics of how the customer journey could slow down, what’s backing this thinking up? Read on.


Experiences vs. Material Objects

There’s been a buzz in the psychology community for the past few years. Studies have looked at the differences between the happiness provided by experiences (moments in time), vs material objects (kept and can be reused). One of the first studies in this area that’s prompted a plethora of others was Boven and Gilovich’s paper ‘To Do or to Have? That is the Question” in 2003.

I’d recommend that you give the paper a read, especially the ‘Three causes’ section and the results of each of the four studies. The main points I pulled out of the paper are below. They are formatted as quotes but I have paraphrased them for easier reading:

People adapt to their level of material possessions, requiring continual increases to achieve the same level of satisfaction (Frederick & Loewenstein 1999)

Material objects tend to remain separate to a person, whereas experiences become part of that person

Experiences are related to deeper feelings of purpose or emotion, and are more in line with our higher level needs (e.g. Maslow’s self actualisation)

Experiences have greater social value — you talk about them, share them, and indulge in them more “This one time! at band camp!…”

Higher levels of income and education value experiences more

Overall the findings here are clear. Experiences are rated as bringing more happiness than material objects. They grow in fulfilment as time passes, and are part of a person, rather than outside of them. Pretty damning for material objects!

Waiting for Merlot: Does Anticipation Matter?

The next study to feed our thinking is “Waiting for Merlot: Anticipatory Consumption of Experiential and Material Purchases” from A. Kumar, M. Killingsworth and T. Gilovich in 2014. The paper is again well worth a read and highly associated to the 2003 contribution. It asks the question of whether waiting for experiences provides more happiness than it does for material objects? The answer is yes, and here’s the key points:

People were willing to pay more to kiss their favourite celebrity in 3 days, than to kiss them straight away — the anticipation is worth money (Loewenstein 1987)

Experiential purchases tend to make people happier because they evoke fewer comparisons to others

The utility people derive from a purchase is not only the here and now, but also the anticipation (Frederick & Loewenstein 1999)

Waiting for a material purchase is “edgier”. It carries additional impatience and less excitement than that of an experiential purchase

People’s remarkable capacity for adaption means they lose the ability to appreciate what they’re frequently exposed to.

The Price of Abundance: Is There Such a Thing as Too Much?

The Price of Abundance: How a Wealth of Experiences Impoverishes Savoring” from Quoidbach, Dunn, Hansenne and Bustin is a paper on whether having a wealth of experiences impoverishes savouring the simple things of life. This study had an interesting twist. They examined people who were more well-travelled than others. They also manipulated people to feel more or less well-travelled and observed the results.

Scarcity produces more focus (enhanced attention) and tunnelling (reduced attention on everything else) relative to abundance. For example with less time people become more focused on the task at hand. Attention & therefore savouring are driven by the relative scarcity of the subject.

People who were, or perceived they were, more well travelled, savoured ordinary destinations less (to the tune of spending 30% less time there).

Extraordinary destinations were savoured equally, no matter what their perceived or actual travel experience.

By decreasing perceived abundance, people can maintain their capacity to savour more ordinary experiences.

This study was fascinating to me in the context of the retail customer journey. The more scarce the experience, the more it will be savoured. But if the experience is extraordinary, it will be savoured anyway, regardless of its abundance.

The Unsung Benefits of Material Things

Weidman and Dunn, in their 2016 paper “The Unsung Benefits of Material Things: Material Purchases Provide More Frequent Momentary Happiness than Experiential Purchases” looked at a counterpoint to the continual hubub of experiences being better. Can material objects provide more frequent happiness than experiences?

This study proved to be very influential on my thinking. If you only have time to read one study, I would read this one as it pays homage to many of the previous studies above. Here’s the top findings:

Happiness can be split in three: anticipatory, momentary (during) and afterglow (Dunn & Weidman, 2015).

Material purchases provide a greater quantity of momentary happiness than experiences.

Experiences provide a more intense momentary experience and a correlated greater afterglow of happiness. They also win in anticipatory happiness.

Which is more important? Intensity and afterglow or more momentary happiness?

Application to Retail: Material & Experiential

We’ve gone through a lot of research that goes far beyond just examining retail, and diving much more into human behaviour as a whole. What is the summary of this research, and therefore how can we apply it to retail and the customer journey?

1) Experiences are very important

Without being too obvious, experiences are very important to people. They enjoy the waiting, the intensity and afterglow of an experience in a way a material object cannot provide.

As a result, your customer journey needs to embrace each of these types of happiness. A great customer service experience in a restaurant will continue to produce happiness long after the momentary taste of the food has passed. Indeed, it could be argued the true quality of the product could be less important than the customer service experience. This is especially true for luxury or higher end purchases.

2) Anticipation for material objects can be an experience

If you can create an anticipatory experience around your product, then you start to turn a simple material purchase into a hybrid of experience and material. There’s no doubt that the Apple fanboys waiting for their latest release are deriving significant anticipatory happiness from the experience, not from the material object itself.

Unboxing (the process of unpacking a product) is also part of the anticipatory experience. Brands delivering their material goods in fantastic and joy-inducing packaging are creating a better anticipatory happiness in their customers. Just check out the number of ‘unboxing’ videos on YouTube.

3) …or greater impatience

We must not confuse anticipation with frustration. Being in a long queue to get milk will not create happiness. Being in line to pay for a dress in New Look is not an anticipatory experience that will create happiness.

The key is to think about how you can create anticipatory happiness without adding any ‘waiting’ or ‘frustration’. Physical queues are generally bad. Making it hard to buy is generally a bad idea. There’s a very obvious line.

4) Anticipation and exclusivity

Brands have long held previews for press and VIPs and new season launches. Next has long held its VIP invites to their two main sales and the allocation of shopping slots. There’s a reason these things are still done. The issue is that not many brands have applied this thinking to the overall customer journey. Why can’t sneak peak season launches be for everybody? Why can’t they also feel like they’re not for everybody? Closed door flash sale sites (e.g. Gilt) have become popular for that very reason, and yet many brands are not implementing these lessons in creating anticipatory happiness.

5) Tie material goods to experiences

This, to me, is something to strive for. A material good provides more momentary happiness over its lifespan. An experience provides better anticipatory, intensity and afterglow. Combining the two seems like a great idea. The tricky part is how. It’s through association. Gift shops in zoos have long done this —  you buy the furry tiger that looks like the one you saw earlier. It makes the price you’re paying seem different, relative to any ‘normal’ soft toy. Now, we need to go further.

We could be working harder with bestselling products and continuation products to tie items to how they will be experienced. How can we bring the happiness of anticipation to a product? Can a football shirt purchase be tied to the experience of the matches, the highs, the lows and having something that represents and embodies that promotion-winning season? Even your product copy could benefit from this perspective. Why do you think ‘boyfriend jeans’ appeared? Same thing.

Some would say that this is just good marketing — GoPro have long ridden off the back of what the product enables rather than what it is. Seems to have worked as well, right? It’s certainly not selling on its looks.

6) Not available elsewhere experiences

The research shows us that experiences become normal after a while, unless they are extraordinary. Pre-season previews, as exciting as they may be initially, will fade in utility over time to the experienced consumer. If an experience is extraordinary though, it will not fade or reduce over time. So, what can you do with your brand to offer people something they literally cannot experience elsewhere, something that, to them, is extraordinary?

To go extreme on this, consider my experiences in the RAF where I help out the air cadets as a reserve officer. This year at the annual camp we were on the fast jet training base and one lucky cadet got an experience flight in a Hawk. He flew 250ft above the ground, down the River Mersey at 500mph. That experience had huge anticipatory, momentary and afterglow happiness and will have cemented his career aspirations in a way nothing else could.

This is the extreme end, but can your brand use its unique resources? Can brands with hugely engaged fans meet the designers, see the buying process and then buy something they had a hand in? Threadless have been doing it for years. Too many brands still think they have a material goods purchase relationship. Those that stay there will rapidly slip behind those that deploy experience orientated hybrid models. You still need to shift product, but the execution has to change. They is how to scale the experience without making it so easy to access and abundant that it loses its appeal as an experience.

7) Amplify the experience aspect of a material purchase

The continual drive for efficiency has taken much of the joy of purchase away. For many, the discovery phase of a purchase is the most enjoyable bit. As a result, can we amplify that stage without stopping them buying? In store or online, can we expose them to a richer experience in the form of content, touch screen experiences, outfit selection and other such ideas? Can slowing down the purchase fast track yield greater AOV (average order value) and a better associated happiness with the purchase? I would argue this is certain. There are still things you just want fast. Bread. Milk. Fuel. But beyond the basics, have you worked too hard on speed and stripped out the joy?

Case study — car purchase

One example of a purchase experience that could be so much better in this way is a car purchase. Brands are getting better but there’s still some way to go.

Ordering a new car can create great anticipatory happiness. A tracker of how your car is doing, where it is and how it’s being built are all excellent ideas that are being implemented to a varying degree of success. The ‘big reveal’ of a new car is also reasonably well done, though could be done better for more mass market cars. It’s a very important moment. Too much waiting creates impatience, but the right amount adds excitement and intensity to what is, in effect, the main purchase point.

The momentary happiness should be very frequent due to a car being used a lot. This has the disadvantage with reference to the studies above of people getting rapidly acclimatised to their new level of comfort, speed and so on. As a result, well-timed communications could introduce greater scarcity into their mindset, which will increase their momentary happiness with the product. An example, maybe?

Well say the car has heated seats. When the weather turns to Winter an email could be sent asking if they’re enjoying their heated seats as only 9.7% of their cars sold have them. By resetting their feeling as to how scarce those heated seats are, their perception of happiness with their purchase increases. The same could be applied to parking sensors (though more frequent now), panoramic roofs (let the summer in) or an upgraded stereo (Adele sounds better in your car*). This is a great missed opportunity to keep the relationship with people about their car and to continually heap happiness on the brand and the purchase ahead of the inevitable trade in 24 months later.

Along the way, you can create many afterglow effects for the car. Emails could be sent asking customers to tell them about their best experiences with the car (producing user generated content) and further associating great and intense experiences like holidays, to the brand and the car. This afterglow happiness of the experience is then transferred, in part, to the material object.

If that worked, you could even produce a book of experiences at trade in to intensify the final afterglow of that object that’s become so much more. Now, a car has a lot of possibilities to create the three parts of happiness. That’s why I picked it for this case study.

Wrapping up — centre on happiness

I’ve deeply enjoyed diving into the research in this area. There’s so much of it that uncovers diamonds of understanding that help us shape the customer journey.

Identifying the three types of happiness and where they exist in your customer journey is crucial. Exploiting each of those types of happiness and how they relate to you as a brand will yield great results.

By focusing your customer journey on happiness, rather than utility and efficiency, the richness and depth of relationship will increase, and so will the results.

Rob Smith, Managing Director

* I prefer Led Zeppelin myself but I thought I’d try and be a bit current.

Image: A busy UK shopping street from http://masomers.com/