Creating the experience

12352134BI love Chicago. There’s a lot to love about it, and though there are some annoying factors (traffic, overcrowding, the audacious lack of concern and lack of ethics at every possible layer of government), the pluses far outweigh the minuses.

But as a non-native, I could never quite grasp the almost religious devotion to Marshall Field’s. I’d shopped there before, and thought it was a perfectly fine place to go.

But to me, a department store is a department store is a department store. They were far more service-oriented “back in the day,” but these days, they’re all big warehouses that carry almost exactly the same thing no matter where you go. Carsons, Boston Store, Macy’s, Lazarus – they all blend into a blur for me as a shopper.

For a long time, I just could not understand what the fuss was about – how, three years after the name change to Macy’s, former Marshall Field shoppers are still trying to bring back Field’s.

Then a few weeks ago, I read Seth Godin’s blog, and an entry he posted titled “Brands that Matter.”

One of his criteria for a brand that matters was (and I paraphrase): When people interact with a brand, do they walk away with delight talking about the experience?

When thinking about a vibrant, engaging brand, the very first brand that came to my mind is Apple. On paper, Apple is a bundle of marketing liabilities. Their computers don’t always run software, or interface easily with Web programs. They’re incredibly expensive, and seldom – if ever – have sales or discounts. I buy them for their dependability (they have never crashed on me, or been consumed by a virus), but when you’re staring at almost two grand for a computer, that seems like a weak cornerstone to build a marketing campaign on.

And yet many people love Apple. And I realized that it’s because Apple creates not just a monetary exchange, but an experience. apple-logo

Being in an Apple store is an experience. The sales pitch is completely lo-fi, and you’re encouraged to touch, feel and hear what Apple’s laptops, desktops, iPods and phones can do. They’ve been first in the field as far as visual aesthetics. The desktop Macs are lean and stylish, and the iPhones are amazingly interactive with an attractive interface.

Everything that Apple does – from its stores, to the products, to their ads and packaging – all focus on creating an experience.

And suddenly, it hit me – this is why Marshall Field’s customers are still so dedicated. They are not remembering the clothes, or the frying pan, or the long lines to return items the day after Christmas. They’re remembering the experience.

They remember the Christmas windows, the Frango candy, the elevator operators, having lunch at Field’s with friends. It’s an experience that with economies of scale and a change in the marketplace today, I think would be impossible to duplicate. But through the haze of misty watercolor memories, people remember those experiences.

And I often hear those Field’s fans rave about the cornerstone of their experience: excellent customer service.

These days, we often take mediocre service for granted. We understand it’s a Faustian bargain; we might get a bargain at Macy’s or Carson’s or an old-school department store, but the store is only able to afford to do that because they’ve got one salesperson on each floor.

I’ve been in Macy’s where you could literally have set ten pins up and MarshallFields_logobowled down a walkway, and no one would have noticed. The Field’s experience – and focus on customer service – is what stays on many shoppers’ minds after all these years.

I think it would be difficult, if not impossible, to reboot a Field’s or a similar department store and be able to do so at an affordable and profitable price point. But the lessons of Field’s, and of Apple, can be applied to any number of retailers and companies.

It’s simple: build a relationship with your customer. Don’t think of their visit as a transaction – make it an experience. And work to make that experience so memorable and so engaging that they keep on coming back.

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