Shopping Happiness is Bursts of Spontaneity Within The Routine

If you’re a modern merchant, you know a lot about the kinds of products and services that your customers crave. You probably have a good handle on which specific offerings they seek out and toss into their (physical or virtual) shopping carts when they visit your fine establishment. But you may not have crisp data on each customer’s preferred shopping rhythm and flow.

In our daily lives, each of us derives comfort and satisfaction from the shopping experience itself. For example, shopping has always been central to my fervent desire to get out of my house now and then and mingle with real human beings, many of them perfect strangers, who happen to live in my general vicinity. As you mine your customer data, you often get a firm grasp on the routines that each customer follows, but what’s less obvious is whether, all things considered, they enjoy that routine or consider themselves to be in a rut.

Big data usually confirms what anecdote and gut tell us: we’re creatures of habit when it comes to our shopping behaviors. We visit the same stores and sites most of the time, browse the same categories of item, buy the same core basket of items, pay in the same way, deplete our supplies in roughly the same amount of time, and return to shop again in regular intervals. Often, you do all this semi-consciously, though you may have a subconscious dissatisfaction with the patterned same-old-same-old that it represents in your life.

When merchants consider the customer experience, often it’s in the context of this assumption that what customers love most is a routine–a “journey”–that fits them like a hand in glove. In other words, a core feature of customer shopping journeys that many merchants seek to optimize is its patterned habitual nature. For each customer, we usually assume that the journey should spool out in roughly the same sequence every single time they go shopping.

consumers shoppingThat’s a faulty assumption. Smart merchants also recognize that most customers want some variety in their lives. Most consumers don’t want a shopping routine that is rote, robotic, and boring. Most people crave a little bit of spontaneity, serendipity, and surprise. On their part, most merchants–even when customer experience is not a consideration–prefer to introduce regular surprises into customers’ lives in the form of new products, promotions, and other experiences that differentiate and grow the business.

Interestingly, there are big-data analytics studies that support this “experience regularity with spontaneity” intuition. I recent came across a scientific study, ” The predictability of consumer visitation patterns” (, that contains this key finding:

“While consumers’ patterns converge to very regular distributions over the long term, at the small scale shoppers are continually innovating by creating new paths between stores…. Yet while aggregate behavior is largely predictable, the interleaving of shopping events introduces important stochastic elements at short time scales.”

Translated to layperson terms, the finding is that people often vary the sequence of activities within their otherwise-predictable shopping routines, though the set of activities itself is quite stable. You visit stores in a different order from last month, and may skip some stores in some months. You buy some products in different stores from where you bought them in previous months. You spend more or less time in some stores this month vs. previous months. And so on.

In other words, you exercise choice, and the very fact that you have choices is a key variable that determines whether you actually enjoy shopping vs. consider it a grim duty to be done as quickly and painlessly as possible. Yes, you and I might at times not like having too many options. But we definitely find value in having choices, and in improvising our shopping rhythm to explore those options in keeping with our ever-changing moods, situations, and schedules.

The data of desire rarely reveals that, in the eyes of many consumers, the shopping journey is its own reward–or, more to the point, that our ability to control, adjust, and experiment with our personal journey is half the fun.

When mapping the shopping journey, merchants should regard customers as Lewis and Clark. Yes, the consumer wants a reasonably well-defined experiential outcome–e.g., discover the Pacific Ocean of insanely great deals. But they also want to explore an uncharted continent of fun and adventure before they reach that distant shore.

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