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Excitement is not the only experience

Woman looking at supermarket shelves. Photo.
Photo by Viki Mohamad on Unsplash

Expectations of what constitutes a positive customer experience have changed over time. Developments in technology and digital services have enabled new kinds of customer experience. As have new store formats and diversified retail offerings. Regardless of the form it has taken, customer experience has always been of paramount importance to retail managers. And it continues to be so. Over 50% of participants at Postnord’s Retail Day 2023 stated that improving customer experience was their top priority for the coming year.

Customer experience has been extensively studied yet remains a slippery concept. In research, format development and customer experience go hand in hand. And there has been an assumption, by researchers, that recreational or experiential shoppers seek unique, dramatic, engaging, exciting and/or theme-park-like experiences such as those found in experience-based store formats, like flagship brand stores, or pop-up stores. The assumption here is that the only kinds of experience that count are novel, exciting, and memorable ones. In other words, there is a bias towards dramatic experiences at the expense of other, more mundane ones.

Recent research from the Centre for Retail Research at Lund university is challenging this bias. Two newly published studies highlight that, in certain situations, shoppers may seek less dramatic, experiences in which, feelings of safety, security, or convenience are important to them.

Easy experiences

IKEA has launched several new store formats in recent years, with urban multi-level full range stores, order and collect outlets, in-city reduced range stores and city-centre planning studios, all of which are different from their traditional, out-of-town, yellow warehouses. At their city-centre planning studios IKEA customers do not shop, at least not in the traditional sense. Customers can use the stores to find inspiration, plan, decide and order but they cannot make direct purchases and they do not take products with them from the store. These planning studios are the subject of a recent article entitled Ease or Excitement? by researchers from the Centre for Retail Research at Lund University. In the article, the authors explore how concept stores, like IKEA’s planning stores, which are experience-based rather than sales-based, contribute to a retail portfolio. 

While concept stores may be inspirational, they do not offer the dramatic, extraordinary and exciting experiences of brand stores or pop-up stores. Instead, they attract customers via their accessible locations, and offer advice and reassurance from informed personnel. In short, they offer ease rather than excitement, by removing friction from the customer journey.

Safe & secure experiences

Security came to the fore as an important element of customer experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, for obvious reasons. Researchers, Jens Hultman and Carys Egan-Wyer, interviewed retail managers in Swedish chain stores about the adaptations made in their stores during the pandemic. During the pandemic, retailers made format and service adaptations to reassure customers that they could continue to shop safely and securely in physical stores. In other words, creating the experience of safety and security (rather than excitement or novelty) was paramount. Even if the restrictions of the COVID-19 are (hopefully) behind us, there may be many other situations in which retailers can create value for customers by providing them with a reassuring kind of customer experience in which safety and security are important elements. 

Future experiences

Once we open our eyes to the idea that customer experience is not only about excitement, the possibilities are endless. Many new kinds of customer experience can be imagined. What about a non-existent customer experience? This could be the future for certain product categories and certain customers. I am talking about subscription retail models, in which the experience of shopping is removed entirely. This is also a customer experience, even if it might sound counter intuitive. As retail channels and store formats continue to diversify, we cannot assume that novel and exciting experiences are what customers want. To attract and retain customers, retail managers must understand what kinds of experience they seek and when. 

Text: Carys Egan-Wyer, Centre for Retail Research