Behavioral Science Principles + CX = Retail Loyalists

Like many people I begin the day by checking my email, a task which normally includes sifting through no less than 30 emails from retailers vying for my attention. And while some see this as an opportunity to mass-delete, I am excited to begin a new conversation with brands who want to have me as a customer (like most conversations, some are more engaging than others, but that’s a topic for another day).

People have hobbies and I consider shopping to be one of mine. Sometimes that includes making a purchase, other times I’m simply browsing. I actually enjoy the experience and appreciate the effort and thought behind every floorplan, display window and home-page. Like many consumers, I make a fair amount of my purchases online. Yet, when given the choice, I prefer to escape to an actual store (gasp!) where I can see colors and touch fabrics in person. I understand the hours of thought that went into picking precisely which button to use, or what the exact shade of red should be.

Two decades in various retail roles (from specialty and department store management, to buying, to private label product development) have hard-wired my brain so I cannot help but appreciate these details as I browse each aisle. It makes me absolutely giddy. This happens regardless of the type of store I’m visiting, from specialty apparel to home improvement – but in full disclosure, it hasn’t always been this way. In my past life I reached a point where I could not separate shopping from work. I boycotted the Black Friday madness and no direct-mail offer was rich enough to lure me into a store. But true love never dies, and after my long hiatus, shopping and I have picked up right where we left off.

I am a merchant at heart; always will be. It’s as woven into my sense of self as much as any fabric ever could be. And while not every person’s life story is as closely tied to the world of retail as my own, every person is a consumer of something – it’s one thing we all have in common. We choose what brands to interact with on a regular basis, some because we want to and some simply out of necessity. That’s why retailers today need to understand how people make decisions… what’s happening rationally in their heads and emotionally in their hearts that triggers the choices they make. This is my passion today, and over the next few weeks I’m going to merge my past and my present by serving up research-based behavioral science principles that retailers should consider as they work to strengthen their bonds with customers and save themselves, quite literally, from deletion.

I start with my favorite principle – the Peak-End Rule.

How people remember an experience is not a mental summation of the overall experience. Instead, our memories are overly biased by both peak or emotionally-intense moments as well as how the experience ended. In their groundbreaking 1993 study on the peak-end rule, Barbara Fredrickson and Daniel Kahneman exposed people to two aversive experiences: in the short trial, participants in the experiment immersed one hand in water at 14 °C for 60 seconds; in the long trial, they immersed the other hand at 14 °C for 60 seconds, then kept the hand in the water 30 seconds longer as the temperature of the water was gradually raised to 15 °C – still painful, but distinctly less so for most subjects. Subjects were later given a choice of which trial to repeat. Surprisingly, a significant majority chose to repeat the long trial, apparently preferring more pain over less. In reality, it was the subjects’ memory recall that the long trial ended better that swayed their decision.

Since not everyone has a tank of 14 °C water lying around to experience this themselves, simply think about the last time that you traveled by air. If you arrived at the airport on time, cruised through security, got the seat you wanted, your flight left on time and was smooth, yet when you landed, the plane sat on the runway for 30 minutes, or worse, your luggage was lost – how would you rate the overall experience? While many things about this trip went well, it is the way the trip ended that you remember most and are likely to share with others when asked “How was your trip”?

This leads me to ask: What are the peak moments during a shopping experience that successful retailers are creating for their customers today? Not everyone is happy about parting with their hard-earned money and most of us don’t enjoy waiting in line to do so. How could the end of the shopping experience (think check-out and delivery) be changed to become more positive and memorable? Please share your thoughts below and share this with others with a similar passion. And, be sure to check back soon for the next principle I will tackle: Goal Gradient Hypothesis. Until then, happy shopping!

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