Why was I alone in a parking lot after midnight?
When you go to a movie theater, you often enter through the main entrance and then leave through a back door at the end of the movie. This flow makes it simple to check customers’ tickets as they enter. If crowds of customers entering and exiting at the theater the same time converge at the same time at the same entrance, checking tickets could be become a nightmare. This is another example of a brand achieving a higher level of efficiency by planning the customer flow. This all sounds good, efficient, and productive; so why would anyone have any problems managing this flow?
Recently I went to watch a late night movie. I walked in, was greeted with a smile, bought some popcorn and a drink, and was in my seat as the previews started. The movie started and nearly two hours later, when the movie was over, I was ready to leave the theater after enjoying a great evening. As I followed other movie goers, I was forced to exit from the back of the building and found myself in a dimly lit parking lot in the middle of the night. I realized that I had not come this way. I started feeling a little confused about where my car was parked and as the crowd thinned out, I started to feel somewhat unsure of my safety. I thought of going back into the theater, but the door was locked and there was no way to go back in. It took me a while, but finally my car’s remote key helped me find the car. Once I was in the car, I locked all doors immediately, took a deep breath and then started my car. I wished the movie viewing experience did not end this way. It felt like I was visiting my best friend’s family for dinner and a movie, and at the end of the evening, when I was ready to leave, they asked me exit through the back door in the alley. Once I was in the back alley, they turned the light off. Just similar to the movie theater experience, I would have felt lost, confused and a little unsafe. More than anything else, I would have felt let down by my best friend, as I did not expect the evening to end this way.
Retailers every day try to find efficiencies. Here are a few examples:
- Home improvement stores do the same thing as the movie theater by surprising the customer with an exit that is different from the door you entered. The store may feel good by forcing customers to wander around the store pushing their carts. In the process, customers might have picked up some extra batteries, hand sanitizers, candy bars, or a few other items they had no intention of buying. Those purchases were the result of the store successfully tricking them, at least on this particular visit.
- A mega toy retailer, even though the entry and the exit is the same, they turn the store into a huge maze, where a customer cannot simply go to the section which has the item they want. The aisles are set up in a way the customer is forced to navigate through different aisles and then finally to their section. This “Layout” gives the store a big win, as it can make the customer be “forcefully” aware of other items in the store, which may result in an impulse purchase.
- A grocery store, puts frequently purchased items like milk, eggs at the back of the store. Again the intention of the grocery store is the same as the toy store. The grocery store wants the customer who came just for eggs and milk to be forced to walk to the back of the store and in the process buy other items the customer did not plan to buy.
In each of the above examples, the store team had a lot of control over the customers’ actions, by forcing the customer to travel in a way they did not want to. What was the cost of all these efficiencies in customer flow? They all came at the expense of making customers feel “not in control”, and in fact quite “stupid” when some of them were unable to find their cars in the parking lot. But after leaving the store, the customers had total control regarding what to tell their friends about their experience. Customers also had full control over whether or not they wanted to return to the same store the next time. The store should have remembered that during the customers’ visit. As each customer chose the store to find the solutions he or she sought, it was important for the store to be appreciative of the trust it received and act accordingly. The store should have focused on being authentic and finding the best way to offer the customer a solution, not on trying to make a few extra dollars from the customer during their visit. To me, the latter is not good customer karma at all. The power completely transitions to the customers the moment they leave the store, and the customer always uses the power based on the experience.
In simple terms, a store should be grateful that in today’s world, with millions of choices, a customer came to them seeking a solution. The store team opens the store every day in anticipation of this opportunity, and once the opportunity arrives, offering a customer-centric solution should be their priority.