Buying groceries in a supermarket? Boring. Booking a holiday online? Ho hum (and frustrating if you subsequently get spammed with offers).
Imagine if retailers could turn such mundane tasks into more enjoyable, or even memorable, experiences for customers.
Smart companies are trying to do just that as 'experience consumption' becomes a hot topic within corporate marketing departments.
The goal is to create a scenario where people have a positive association with a brand that goes beyond merely efficient service.
Mathew Chylinski, a senior lecturer in the school of marketing at UNSW Business School, has a research focus on modelling customer decision processes. He says the popular, tactile design of Apple's laptop and McDonald's highly successful "I'm Lovin' It" slogan highlight that many customers now demand enjoyable experiences when they interact with a brand.
But for every Apple or McDonald's, there are many companies that fail to improve the overall buying experience of their customers.
"Even though it's so important and everyone talks about it, very few companies actually apply this," Chylinski says.
In an era when customers have more choice and information than ever, he believes companies must not just rely on their brand to generate sales.
"Customers can switch from one online business to another in seconds. So to get them engaged in the process of buying has become really important," Chylinski says.
advance of our paper is that these fun points do not require a redesign of the
core service’ – mathew chylinkski
Upgrading the shopping event
For his forthcoming paper, Experience Infusion: How to Improve Customer Experience with Incidental Activities, Chylinski has teamed up with Ashish Sinha, a professor and associate dean at UTS Business School, UNSW Business School PhD candidate David Sugianto Lie, and Lavaic Limited management consultancy director William Neill, to explore ways to improve purchasing processes.
The authors argue that the infusion of an intrinsically enjoyable but incidental activity, such as gameplay, can improve the overall experience of the decision-making task for shoppers.
"Even more importantly," they write, "for a manager, our study implies a 'plug and play' approach to improved customer experience without the exhaustive redesign of an established marketing system."
While gameplay was chosen as the incidental activity for the research, which involved 105 participants accessing an online retail environment for consumer electronics, Chylinski says the endeavour could easily be adapted depending on the demographic a retailer is targeting.
For example, in a supermarket aisle where a dull but must-have product such as dishwashing liquid is for sale, the store could introduce experiential products such as fragrances to change the dynamic.
The key, he suggests, is adding to and upgrading the shopping event rather than changing the processes with which consumers are familiar.
Emotion to the fore
According to Raj Mendes, managing director of consulting firm The Customer Experience Company, the fundamental principles of customer experience are timeless.
However, he says the findings of Chylinski and his fellow researchers are a reminder that customer expectations and behaviours have evolved. Effective and efficient service is no longer sufficient; consumers now expect emotion as part of the experience.
"You've absolutely got to be effective and efficient, as they've become hygiene factors as everything is commoditised, [but] now you've also got to create experiences that are desirable to consumers.
"The way you do this is via emotion – and gamification has the potential to create emotion when applied to experiences delivered by all types of organisations, including large corporates such as banks and telcos," Mendes says.
Nevertheless, he contends that for many organisations with traditional cultures and mindsets, it is difficult to improve consumers' engagement. Therefore, infusing gamification into the traditional experience – such as the gameplay example in the study by Chylinski et al – becomes a form of compensation for consumers.
The rider is that the activities must suit their respective target groups and also be aligned to the brand of the enterprise. Also, gameplay may work for one person but not another – perhaps a younger demographic, but not an elderly group.
"It also has to be related to the context of the customer in that experience and it has to be relevant," Mendes says.
don’t have to be the cheapest if you provide that experience; experience and
brand go hand in hand ’ – raj mendes
The addition of fun points
A significant point to emerge from Chylinski, Sinha, Lie and Neill's study is that the incidental activity does not have to directly relate to the product or service the consumers are purchasing.
"These separate activities still transfer the experience," Chylinski says.
The research examines the dilemma for managers designing enjoyable retail experiences for customers, with the authors noting that "the utility of the decision process tends to be negatively correlated with the final choice. To improve one, a customer forgoes the other, which makes experience consumption difficult to implement in many settings."
The authors propose a framework of "compensatory experience binding" whereby positive experiences counterbalance negatives such as transaction costs during decision-making.
They believe the research offers significant, practical implications for managers in these situations, without requiring a significant redesign of existing marketing processes:
"Importantly, our findings imply that experience consumption is a holistic approach … The key insight for managers is that the shopping experience, which managers try to optimise, is not isolated from other customer behaviours. Managing experience requires managing these 'other' customer behaviours in addition to the shopping process."
Chylinski adds that the problem for managers is that improving the efficiency of a service – for example, as ride-sharing service Uber does for its clients – will not automatically improve experience consumption.
"It does remove many of the pain points, but experience consumption requires more than that," he says.
"It requires the addition of fun points. The advance of our paper is that these fun points do not require a redesign of the core service. These fun points can be unrelated to the core function of the product or service. Uber can improve the experience of its ride-sharing service by using a random joke or a game while a person waits for the Uber driver to arrive, for example."
The authors conclude that experience infusion is a viable alternative approach in that it can involve incidental activities that, despite not being an intrinsic part of the buying process, "nonetheless improve the customer's experience without detracting from the final choice. Games are a perfect example of this; they are the quintessential experience consumption."
'Experiences and brand go hand in hand'
A 2015 report from professional services firm PwC called 'The Sharing Economy' urges retailers to understand the shift from conspicuous consumption to experience consumption, noting that "today's consumers are finding more satisfaction and status in experiences, rather than static material possessions. For retailers, this means becoming purveyors of experience as an extension of product."
PwC suggests social media is an ideal platform to facilitate sharing experiences, while pop-up stores are a logical way to build "experiential cache" in a physical store.
According to Mendes, it makes sense for companies of all types to woo their customers with different experiences.
"You don't have to be the cheapest if you provide that experience; experience and brand go hand in hand," he says.
With this study having demonstrated the concept of experience infusion, the authors claim that numerous extensions can be envisaged.
Chylinski adds that even though the study considered an online scenario, experience infusion should be relevant to bricks-and-mortar settings as well. The key message, he says, is that incidental activities "can be injected as a distraction to improve the experience overall for the customer".
For managers, this may require a mindset change whereby they understand the need to combine traditional approaches with this new strategy.
"This is a novel way of combining them that doesn't require a lot of investment," Chylinski says.