When people consider buying anything, whether it be clothes, a gadget, or home, they often spend a lot of time comparison shopping and trying to gather information to inform their choice. In fact, a major effort is generally exerted to try to experience the item:
- When shopping for shoes, we will put on one shoe and walk back and forth; then the other shoe, check ourselves out in the mirror and hold on to the item while scanning for other options.
- For hotels and trips, we read reviews, look at pictures, and find out what our friends know about a destination or establishment. We look out for those horror stories and shop around for a balance of quality and price.
- When shopping for a home, we take tours, learn about the previous owners, walk/drive through the neighborhood, look for restaurants and amenities nearby that match our interests and try to picture how we would arrange the rooms and furniture.
What this all leads to is a frame of reference. People try to create and imprint a picture in their minds of the item, not just on its own, but within their lives. It is easy for businesses to lose sight of this fundamental aspect of the decision-making process and leave it to the customer to do all this leg-work with little assistance. But this is a mistake.
Supporting the Initial Experience
We all know that feeling: you go to the store (or online) and buy something, bring it home and then ‘bam!’ it sets in—this is not what you thought you were getting. It may take a week, an hour or just a few minutes. You feel angry and disappointed, and wonder what you could have done differently to make the right decision. Indeed, there are many things that could have gone wrong, but there is one that I see consistently replayed: you were unable to truly experience the item before you bought it.
Let’s consider the occasions when the decision goes right. For instance, I went to Best Buy to get a new case for an iPhone. Examining the choices, I ruled out some immediately as they were ugly, overpriced, or flimsy. I now had to choose from the three that remained which were priced right and were attractive. How could I make this choice? One case had a fabric swatch/hole cut out so that I could touch the case, another had no opening, but had transparencies in the packaging, and the third had only pictures and no way of viewing the actual case whatsoever.
I needed to know how it would fit my phone, what the texture was like, and how heavy it would be. Obviously none of the three packages allowed me to inform this decision. I could touch one (with a finger or two) and guess at the weight and fit for all three. To my surprise, after asking for help, I was given a tray of all the unpackaged cases. I was able to try them all out on the phone, put it in my pocket, play with the controls with the jacket on, and ultimately make a decision with which I’m still satisfied.
Here are some other cases where a full initial experience often leads to a positive decision:
- A music store that let’s you listen to an album before you buy it — the whole album
- Ice cream stores — you can try the flavors before you buy
- Sports equipment that you can demo, such as tennis racquets (Tennis Warehouse demos is an example of a good program)
The third example above, namely demoing tennis racquets, is the ultimate model for allowing consumers to truly experience a product before they buy. Some programs request a fee to enter the demo program which can be placed toward the purchase price of the chosen racquet. From a business and consumer perspective, this type of system is extremely beneficial. The consumer is secure in the final decision, having been able to use the equipment in the context that they would at home (or rather on the court), and the business earns loyalty with an extra commitment to buy through the initial investment. Furthermore, even if the potential purchaser does not buy a racquet this time around, the benefit of being able to demo many racquets will likely bring the person back once she is ready to resume the search.
In some instances, enabling the consumer in this way can even lead to greater sales as the person is able to discover and experience items that they may not have otherwise. Such an instance occurred for me personally when I went to peruse CDs in a music store that had stalls set up to listen to music. I intended to buy one or two CDs and ended up leaving with closer to seven. Had I not been able to listen to those albums in the store, I would likely not have bought them, wanting to do more research on the artists or particular albums.
Obviously, not every purchasable item lends itself to this model. It’s hard to experience a flight before you actually fly, and doesn’t make too much sense to demo a washer/dryer system. However, current attempts to satiate the consumer’s desire to know what they’re getting are somewhat lacking.
Giving the Consumer More than Half the Picture
Consider buying a camera or mobile phone. Typically, stores secure these items with locked cables, and may not even allow you to interact with the interface. Sometimes, you can pull up on the securing cable and play with the buttons and see some of the menus and functionality. Great, but how does this translate to the experience you will have once you take the device home. In the case of the iPhone, I recall it being a bit heavier and bulkier than I initially thought when I held it in the store. Furthermore, the AT&T store I visited didn’t allow me to to download and play with the iPhone apps on the demo. This was a huge shortfall considering that apps are one of the hugest appeals of the phone.
All these limitations in the initial experience can hurt both in the short and long term. In the short term, when a consumer cannot get a feel for a product in the store, they are likely to delay their purchase and will move on to other sources for self-education and assurance. In the long term, a consumer may purchase, but then become dissatisfied which leads to increased restocking costs, customer support calls, and a lower brand value. By enabling people to get a full picture of the product, satisfaction and brand respect will increase.
By supporting a robust demo experience, companies can expose the nuances of their product versus others. Think of the Pepsi Challenge, and the criticism that some raised of the biased sip test. By providing only a partial view of what people like (e.g. the first sip), we ignore the increased like or dislike that may arise from continual and contextual use. Think of the following cases:
- Taking a mountain bike for a test ride on the road
- Viewing a TV in the store at a distance of 5 feet, when you’re couch is 12 feet from your TV stand
- Judging sunglasses’ protection indoors
- Using a car GPS while not driving
Other Ways to Empower the Consumer
As mentioned previously, extensive demos are not always possible, but simulating the experience as closely as possible helps. Additionally, being aware of the need to comparison shop and read reviews is crucial. These decision aides can be presented at the outset (think of the Progressive model or BevMo!). BevMo! is a great example of providing the right information to inform decision without actually providing the true experience. By providing the wine ratings and descriptions, the shopper knows what to expect without actually tasting the wine (see below). Of course, it would be even greater to actually taste the wine, but logistically this is impractical given the magnitude of the selection; however, tastings are scheduled at times.
By providing the right amount of information and facilitating a consumer’s actual experience with a product, companies can empower the consumer to make appropriate purchase decsions. This benefits consumers by helping them make purchases with which they will be happy, and it helps businesses by increasing sales and brand value.