POSTED ON December 01, 2016
Switching Shoppers off Autopilot

It’s common today for shoppers to be on autopilot when they are in a store. They resort to their routine of going through the motions of shopping and lists are their flight plan. What puts shoppers in a buying mood? What kills the mood? Will they reward the retailer with more trips? These are critical questions for retail success. With the focus today on Brand experience, shoppers may not even pay attention long enough to know they are having one. Or worse, the experience will be negative.

Getting to Engagement

In order to get the shopper off of autopilot and into “Experience mode” requires waking up their positive emotions and getting engagement. But getting to this state of engagement requires acknowledging their mission and not trying to distract them from it, and then they will naturally partake in value-adding experiences.

To Illustrate, think about the last flight you took. If you are like me, even if you wanted coffee or a snack you probably passed by the Starbucks and a couple news stands to get to your gate and then back-tracked to get coffee and a protein bar. This was because we have a primary mission that dominates our behavior- make sure that Gate C7 is actually the right gate and the plane is on-time. The primary goal of getting home dominates our behavior, so we are oblivious to all other stimuli. Autopilot is getting to the gate. We may be aware that we passed Starbucks, but coffee is a lower priority so we neglect it.

The Importance of Insights

Learning this insight several years ago, we completely re-designed a banking experience so that we could eliminate the customers’ focus on line speed and instead have a Brand-driven experience. Observational research found that customers did not notice promotions, offers, and product merchandising because their attention in line was focused on the tellers. Anxieties like “why is that guy taking so long”, and “which teller will be available for ME next” dominated their thinking. They were consumed by the mini-soap opera going on and certainly not in a mood to process messages or learn. Managing their stress was taxing, and much more important than the marketing messages they were surrounded by. In fact, when interviewed on exiting, most customers couldn’t recall any signs or merchandising existing at all. They were not in a buying mood and not registering any positive Brand associations. The experience was negative.

The unpredictability of the time it would take to do banking made the activity stressful, and the Brand was seen as unsympathetic. The customers’ emotions were active, but negatively. Feelings of anger, and states of frustration and restlessness were dominant because they could not efficiently complete their mission. Not only did they not engage with marketing messaging and merchandising, the tellers had to diffuse stressed, impatient customers at the start of their eventual interaction.

Innovating to Overcome Anxiety

In order to provide a Branded experience and actually engage with waiting customers, the entire process of serving them needed to be overhauled. Autopilot in this case was scanning the teller counter and continuously processing the time it was taking. We innovated the way customers experienced the bank by managing their wait time differently. Customers “checked in” and were given an estimated wait time that was reasonable, which removed their anxiety and eliminated the drama. They were then relaxed and able to browse the communications and the displays of services, and become engaged in the experience. They were open to learning and buying – switching off the autopilot. The bank opened in a new market with this concept and surpassed all their projected performance goals.

Easy Does It

Getting customers to embrace an experience requires understanding their autopilot and the potential anxieties and negative emotions driving their behavior. Diffusing anxiety unlocks their willingness to engage. In retail this means creating stores that are easy to shop and have the basics right, like being organized and in-stock. Until then everything is turbulence. Help the shopper find what is on their list FIRST, and then they will pay you back with their time and attention. Granted, some retailers like TJ Maxx thrive on the treasure hunt, but shoppers have that expectation when they invest time in a TJ Maxx trip. And even then the racks have consistently marked size ranges within clearly designated departments.

So going through the emotions beats going through the motions. Capturing insights that can clarify where shoppers have stress will provide ways to overcome emotional headwinds. Only then can autopilot be turned off and Brand building experiences come to the forefront. Marketing and merchandising concepts work smarter, not harder to get attention and engagement. Invest first in helping the customer get what they came for, then engagement will follow and experiences will actually happen.

Bill Chidley is a Partner and Co-Founder at ChangeUp. Creating Innovating Experiences that Drive Growth.

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