HARDWICK — The only thing there is that’s left to sell

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Published: January 24,2014

Tags: Business, economic development, Mississippi, Phil Hardwick

PHIL HARDWICK

PHIL HARDWICK

“The only things left to sell are convenience and an experience.”

I heard those words over 10 years ago at a conference about future trends. The idea fascinated me so I’ve been observing the market, especially the retail market, to determine if the concept played out. It turns out that there are plenty of examples to support the statement.

From a marketing standpoint, it must be asked: What is there left to sell? We consumers have practically everything we could possible need. Our food, clothing and shelter needs were met long ago. We have an incredible amount of choices for everything we need and desire. So the idea of selling convenience and experiences in our transactions goes beyond the products themselves. Examples abound.

Let us begin with Starbucks. The company promotes the experience, not just the product. On the company’s “About us” section of the website are these words: “It happens millions of times each week — a customer receives a drink from a Starbucks barista — but each interaction is unique.” Thus, Starbucks promotes more than just the sale of coffee.

Another example is McDonald’s and drive-through fast food restaurants in general. The McDonald’s experience now includes coffee bars and children’s playgrounds, not to mention free wi-fi. Convenience is certainly the operative word. After all, such places are called fast-food restaurants for a reason. Drive-through times and accuracy is an obsession with fast-food restaurants. Drive-through times were the subject of studies by QSR Drive-Thru Performance Study as early as 1998. Back then, Long John Silver’s got its customers through the line in 159.1 seconds, while Whataburger led the accuracy rankings at 86.7 percent. By 2009, Wendy’s was tops in speed with 134.1 seconds, while Chick-fil-A was best in accuracy with 96.4 percent of its orders correct.

It is difficult to find any transaction that has not been improved based on these two principles of convenience and experience. Technology played — and is playing — a huge role in allowing it to happen. These days we shop online and have the product delivered to our doors in just a few days or even hours in some cities. Or we shop and research online and go to the store for the personal experience.

Take shopping for a new automobile for example. In the past, it took a trip to the dealer to learn more about the product, haggling over sales price and time off from work for service on the vehicle. Now it’s research online, emailing back and forth with the dealer, very little negotiation and an on-site experience that is quick.

And what about residential real estate? Instead of contacting a real estate agent and touring properties, the online technology allows an interesting narrowing-down experience that is not unpleasant. After viewing properties on our computers we then select the agent, not the other way around.

Some experiences have changed because of the convenience. For example, a man’s haircut experience meant going to a barber shop, waiting for the next chair to open and plenty of conversation with fellow customers. There was even a movie made about this type of barber shop experience. Nowadays, there are mall and strip center barber shops with more than a dozen chairs, a take-a-number experience and quick service.

Movie theaters and watching movies have undergone a metamorphosis. The movie theater sound system, seating and screen size offer an experience. IMAX theaters are the ultimate example. Then again, for those who prefer watching movies at home there is the convenience of digital recording, Netflix and online streaming. What could be more convenient than watching when you want it? Big screen televisions have created opportunities for the added experience. Perhaps the ultimate in-home television experience is the Super Bowl party (Go Broncos!).

The list of products and services that offer more convenience, and even an experience, would be a long one. Consider Keurig coffeemakers, online banking and ATM’s, hotel/motel express checkouts, airline reservations and social media sites, just to name a few. Even government agencies are getting in the act. Many cities offer emergency alert notification systems, online auto tag renewal and more. I recently renewed my driver’s license by going to the Department of Public Safety, bypassing a long line and interacting with a machine that took my photo, my updated information, my payment, and then issued my new license on the spot. It even allowed me to change my photo until I got one that I liked. Now that’s an experience that was convenient.

Finally, let us not forget where much of this began — convenience stores. The U.S. convenience store count increased to a record 149,220 stores as of Dec. 31, 2012, a 0.7 percent increase (1,094 stores) from the year prior, according to the latest NACS/Nielsen Convenience Industry Store Count.

The lesson in all this is that businesses must continually adapt to demands and expectations of customers who are continually responding to products and services that offer convenience and an experience.

» Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Pease contact Hardwick at phil@philhardwick.com.

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