Two things are certain when I go grocery shopping. The first is that I will purposefully not grab a hand cart and subsequently end up with an armload of groceries threatening to teeter out of my grip. The other thing is I am sure to forget a critical item…usually the milk. Perhaps this is a “man thing” – I’m not sure. But this article isn’t necessarily about grocery shopping so much as it’s about about my journey as a customer in any store. It’s also about how misguided businesses are when it comes to understanding their customer’s goals.

If retail marketers understood their customers and their customer’s goals along their commerce journey, the shopping process would be completely different with a streamlined checkout and help from the front door to the checkout lane. But most of the retail industry has a greater preoccupation with their bottom line than the customer. Consider the checkout lane: I have been having trouble buying things and making it through the checkout process. It seems like there is a marketer behind every register and every checkout process – someone who simply wants to make it more difficult for me to achieve my goals. Whether it’s obtaining their new Supersaver Card, signing up for some special offer or taking a “short five minute survey,” I have found myself inundated with offers and extras that really aren’t anything more than extra hassle for me. Worse yet, they always seem to come at the end of my shopping process – the time when I am most anxious to make my purchase and move on.

I’ve written on this topic before in User experience and customer service: What’s the difference? In that article, I specifically refer to a number of problems in the checkout process. But what I didn’t mention is the marketing psychology behind these techniques and how they operate under the guise of making your customer experience better while they really seek to extract more money from your pocket. Let’s work with some real world examples of this.

The weather seems to have turned here in Chicago…at least a little. And, I decided to pick up a couple of golf shirts from Kohl’s the other day. The challenge for me in this entire “customer journey” was finding the right size and style at the right price. Of the 40 minutes I spent in the store, 15 minutes was spent browsing, 20 minutes was spent trying on different sizes and running back to the rack for a different size while the final 5 minutes was spent checking out. I’m a man and don’t particularly relish shopping, but don’t hate it either. However, one characteristic of my shopping habits is that when I am done, I am ready to go. I don’t want to stand around and chit-chat with a cashier or spend any more time in line than I have to. On this particular day, the gentleman at the register asked if I would be putting this purchase on my Kohl’s charge. I stated I would be paying cash. I was then asked if I had a Kohl’s charge and replied no. I was then asked “why not?” The gentleman then went on to explain to me the savings and benefits of having a Kohl’s charge card. I declined several times before being able to complete my sale.

This situation and similar situations like it are particularly frustrating to me for a couple of reasons. First, I would appreciate a business that rewards me in savings regardless of whether I use a store charge or their Supersaver Card. Second, none of these pitches for charge cards are in the customer’s best interest. They are purely in the interest of the business. Marketers know I am more willing to part with money I have not yet earned than I am cash that I have earned sitting in my account. This is called hyperbolic discounting and is a common concept in psychology. It essentially states we have a preference for immediate over delayed gratification. So, I will be more willing to purchase items with a store charge than cash and the 15-20% coupons they send out regularly will reinforce that tendency. It all seems so great until the bill arrives at the end of the month. In other words, you don’t really “cash in on savings” with these cards since they encourage more spending – spending you don’t really worry about until another day. In the words of J. Wellington Whimpy: “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” I cancelled my Kohl’s charge 10 months ago and have shopped there once as a result. I might have only shopped there once anyway, but usually pay hundreds in card charges per year. This year I’ve bought $40 worth of merchandise.

The entire point here concerns the nature of marketing and marketer’s brilliant ideas to try and sell me more (or offer me some other product) at the point of purchase when it isn’t always in my best interest. This is sometimes referred to as “ancillary products” by marketers. Here’s what Beth Godlin of Fusion has to say about these types of sales:

“Whether they’re [customers] buying plane tickets, renting a car, or booking a hotel – there are more than likely other add-ons available to help improve their entire order. Every moment counts in sales. What better place to close a deal than when a customer is already in the process of making a purchase? Giving your customers the option to buy ancillary products that complement their purchase is not only a good business practice that will drive sales, but it also provides another layer of customer service.”

Godlin is referring to online sales, primarily. I would agree offering ancillary products can be useful if done in the interest of building a better customer experience. But it usually is not. And it is rarely done well. It is most often done for the purposes Godlin notes above – to “drive sales.” That’s what Godlin and people like her get paid to do – drive sales. They are not user experience professionals and their motivations are highly questionable. It is clear from reading Godlin’s article it is written from a sales perspective and not the user’s perspective.

Ancillary products are often lumped it at the end of a sale and very often are not pertinent to the sale at hand (thus violating the very definition of ancillary). Redbox likes to do this to me about once a month during the checkout process when they ask if I would like to upgrade to Blue Ray instead of DVD. I don’t own a Blue Ray. So the question is not only annoying to me as a user, but also shows me some idiot in marketing who knows nothing about me decided it would be a good idea to have me manage an extra interface control on the off chance Redbox could make an extra quarter. Another example is the extended warranty. Best Buy loves to do this and they even try to offer this on trivial items such as CDs and video games. Best Buy once offered magazine subscriptions at the end of a sale. I don’t know where that idea came from or why someone thought there was a connection between my Dave Matthews boxed set and a subscription to Men’s Health.

I tend to despise ancillary products and have to largely disagree with Godlin’s article. They are generally a poor idea, sales-driven and interrupt the user’s flow. When the user clicks checkout or walks over to the register, they have a goal in mind. They are done shopping and their goal is now to complete a purchase for the item they shopped for. This is not the time to try and sell them something else or place any obstacles between them and their goal. That merely interrupts their flow and taints the user experience. When you attempt to market to a user at checkout, you not only insert an obstacle in the path of the user’s goals, you also divert their goals to your goals.

The best way to develop customer loyalty is to ensure you meet a customer’s needs and goals – not your own. This is why ancillary products and other questionable marketing techniques do little more than piss the end-user off. They keep them from achieving their desire goal and are not customer or user-centered. They are interruptions to the natural flow we want to create for users.

Numerous websites have recently begun to create similar interruptions in the user flow with advertisements that will pop up about 10 seconds into your site visit. So there you are just starting the article you want to read and your entire thought process is interrupted by a Lexus ad or a request to join an email list. The user just had their goal (to consume content) interrupted and redirected by an unwanted advertisement. Great idea.

This can all be reduced to a single simple principle: Ensure what you are offering is of value to your user in completing their goals. Whenever you switch the user from their goals to your own, you are dangerous and precarious territory. Ideally, your goal and the user’s should be mutual. And all products offered at the end of a sale or in conjunction with a sale should add value to your user’s journey.

So instead of putting bubble gum and candy bars in the checkout lane at the grocery store, they should fill coolers with gallons of milk. Because you know you always forget the milk. And they should do as some stores do: Spread the handcarts around the store in numerous handcart stations for people like me. Yeah sure – it encourages me to buy more. But, it is mutually beneficial because I’m dumb enough to think I don’t need a cart almost every time I go shopping.

In short: If you concentrate on the customer’s goals and ensure their needs are met, sales will naturally follow. Meeting the customer’s needs will ensure success trickles down.

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