Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Retailers: Wake Up! Customers are flatlining

Melvina Bolston, 48, ventured to a Walmart on Thanksgiving, waited 85 minutes in a checkout line, and was back in the fray on Friday at her sister’s behest, at an open-air shopping center in Norcross, Ga.

“You can pretty much put it in the books: I will never do it again,” Ms. Bolston said. “This is like torturing yourself on purpose.”
So ends the Elizabeth Harris’ holiday sales round up in yesterday’s New York Times, which suggests that the customer—remember her?—might be better served next year on line.

Sure, online shopping will offer her more convenience (more on that tomorrow), but it won’t offer her the most exquisite holiday shopping experience of all—anticipation and gratification.
Anticipation and gratification (or disappointment) are at the heart of shopping. They provide the highs—and the lows.  And it’s not just about the holidays, even though Ralphie’s “official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle” sits center stage as his object of desire.  Dad, too, is caught up in the tantalizing promise of anticipation—what will he win for having solved the newspaper’s puzzles?  And when it arrives in the largest box ever, he’s crazy about it—the infamous, stocking-clad leg lamp—almost as if he’d chosen it himself.
Anticipation is barely sustainable from Thanksgiving to Christmas, but, when Christmas arrives the day after Halloween, who has the energy or the desire to maintain such an emotional high?  In our over-hyped, over-promoted world of constant sale/sale/sale, blockbusters, Super Bowls, all elections all the time, about the only true anticipation we had left was Steve Job’s latest gadget, and, sadly, that is falling flat now too.
Holiday sales may have declined for a lot of reasons—the continued economic lack luster “recovery,” the extended sales period, the constant discounting, the scenes of greed on a massive (and violent) scale.  But mostly, the customer has lost interest.  Retail is suffering from the deadliest malady—it’s boring.  We’re boring our customers.  You can’t appreciate the peaks if you don’t have a few valleys.  Roller coasters are thrilling because they have both ups and downs.  Constant sales and extended sales periods not only erode margins; they also erode the very core of shopping—the thrilling experience of it.  Customers are flatlining.  It’s time to wake up.

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