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Retailers need to stop selling boxes and start selling experiences

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Chances are you’ve been hearing and reading a lot in the last week and a half about the way shoppers’ habits have changed.

They’re less likely to go into stores to shop, which is particularly noticeable on Black Friday. They’re buying online more — especially on mobile. They’ve spread out their shopping, realizing that the best deals come after — or even considerably before — the traditional holiday shopping kickoff. And, of course, they are much more interested in buying experiences than buying things.

The experience-over-products discussion has been around for a while. But Oisin Hanrahan, co-founder and CEO of Handy, has an interesting way of looking at the topic. It’s not either/or for Hanrahan, whose company supplies consumers with handy people to put together and install purchases like furniture and electronics. In the video interview below, he lays out his take.

It’s a refreshing way to think about consumers’ preferences. While we all tend to like nice things, there are few that we want just to have for the sake of having them. We want nice things for what they give us or do for us — the experience they create, the problem they solve, the discomfort they eliminate, the chore they make obsolete.

I was particularly taken by Hanrahan talking about shoppers wanting a “solution.” While the word is overused in marketing-speak, it is a distinction. A “tool” is a thing. A “solution” is an experience. Progressive retailers understand the distinction and work hard to honor it.

Consumers don’t buy tools, they buy solutions

I remember hearing a Home Depot executive at a conference explaining that when a customer comes to Home Depot to buy a screwdriver, they don’t want a screwdriver. They want to build a swing set or mount a cabinet or fix the loose window shade in the den. I might not have the examples quite right, but his point was that those customers had a problem or faced a challenge and they wanted a solution.

And the larger point is that just because consumers appear to be favoring experiences over goods, they are not going to stop buying products and spend only on restaurant meals and vacations.

The challenge for retailers is to understand that their products are part of an experience — and maybe even that buying their products should be an experience. The challenge, as Hanrahan put it, is to stop selling boxes and start selling experiences.

True, that perspective is a, well, handy one for Hanrahan to espouse. After all, his company goes a long way toward helping consumers experience their purchases. But the idea of looking at selling more holistically has a track record of success.

Apple knows how to sell experience

Look at Apple with its stores and their sleek interiors, light wood tables and lack of intrusive checkout lanes. Consider, even, Apple’s packaging, designed to make getting at their products an experience. Or consider IKEA’s move to partner with TaskRabbit to create the very kind of experience Hanrahan is talking about.

And, of course, there is Handy’s own work to ensure that consumers don’t sit staring at boxes of new, but complicated, products that they’re afraid to unpack.

Like so much in retail, the shift of consumer desire from products to experiences is not black or white. It is part of a larger transformation that comes with new challenges — and new opportunities.

Photo by Mike Cassidy

Mike Cassidy

Mike Cassidy

Mike is the head of storytelling at Signifyd. A former journalist and a retail geek, he covers ecommerce and the way technology is transforming digital commerce. Contact him at [email protected].