In the main room of my home stands an old clock my grandmother gave me. It’s pretty awkward in my small space: little brass hammers chime on the quarter, half, and hour. Getting reminded every fifteen minutes “Time’s passing and you’ve done zip!” is annoying. But the back and forth ‘tap’ of this clock’s pendulum is kind of soothing and even hypnotic: motion without without progress. Which I guess is why the word ‘pendulum’ became a metaphor: “The more things change, the more they stay the same”. We move away from certain experiences, then find ourselves longing for them.
Case in point: my love-affair with online shopping hinges on ‘fast’, ‘efficient’ and being able to browse without whatever hassles I’d rather not deal with. At the same time, I grieved when my favorite brick-and-mortar vintage boutique “Vigi” (the only one of its kind in San Francisco) closed. I probably helped it on its way. But despite my (and a million others’) online habits, recent data shows that quite a few storefronts are actual getting a people-surge.
A developing human-behavior story and fairly new area of consumer psychology is based on the fact that – ready for the pendulum to swing the other way? – we’re growing bored with being “the emotionless endpoint” of our transactions. We want more, not less, social interaction, and a fuller experience of the item or service: pizza, streamed content, beauty products, whatever. Two prominent corporations just created a totally new leadership position, as a result: the CXO, or Chief Experience Officer.
“The experience of the product is (now) bigger than the product itself”, said the CXO of a major credit card company, in late 2019. It’s no longer just about the function of something (credit cards, shaving razors, socks, suitcases and mattresses), but the personal feeling I get during the process of seeking and buying. I think I stumbled into a first-wave of this while traveling.
Not too long ago I attended a conference in Tampa, Florida. In early evening of the first night, walking back to my hotel I stopped at a pub. After a bit I continued on my way. A brightly lit outpost – takeaway only — of a major pizza chain came into view; the spicy smells triggering major hunger pangs.
I stepped into the weird, ATM-like enclosure to place my order. Asked if I wanted a text when my pie was ready, of course I did. Little did I know that this meant a conversation with my pie. After a minute or two, Mr. Pizza greeted me by name. He let me know when he was getting tossed, being spread with goodies and then tipped into the oven. While he was in the oven, he also also managed to ask, Did I forget to order ‘sides’? Happy face pizza emoji.
Domino’s Pizza was one of the first vendors to use a little bit of artificial intelligence to feed my need for social interaction, control, and even a kind of intimacy. Even if it did seem a little silly and even creepy, my food managed to create a ‘human’ connection with me. I liked it. I was tired, and it felt “ok” — even welcome — in the moment.
The way our desires shift — seeking what’s ‘trending’, and then back to a kind of nostalgia for what we had before — is a natural part of human behavior and society’s functioning. But the Chief Experience Officer, and the pretty aggressive prying (yes, prying) into how we want and need to interact with our products, makes me curious about where a healthy balance might be. I’m happy that flagship stores are staging comebacks, by recognizing how complex (fickle?) my wants and needs are.
But I’m less happy with each one of my ‘clicks’ being analyzed and faux-personalized. I sometimes feel myself getting lulled into a kind of comfort-in-connection that I know is fake. How much do I care if I’m being tracked, as long as my ‘experience’ is enhanced? The only way to know is to ‘unplug’ from all that I’ve grown used to. An entire stucture has wagered that I’ll never do that.