Anything Worth Having Is Worth Waiting For: The Myth of Instant Gratification

Ask shoppers what they want and you’ll find they want it all — good quality products, wide selection, low prices — and they want it all now. That is the reason that Amazon.com gives every other retailer fits because in the first of those three wants, Amazon pretty well beats all comers.

On the last, instant gratification, Amazon still has a ways to go, though the time efficiency of Amazon at the front end when ordering often makes up for any lag in the back end for delivery, though its engineering and fulfillment departments are working overtime to figure out how to make near-instant delivery a reality.

Consumers are driving the demand for instant gratification, so much so that we are becoming an instant gratification society. Digital marketer Neil Patel says, “Instant gratification is the desire to experience pleasure or fulfillment without delay or deferment. Basically, it’s when you want it; and you want it now.”

In consumers’ quest for “instant gratification” there are two components: the “Instant” now and the “Gratification” from pleasure and fulfillment achieved that leads to personal happiness. But human psychology programs us so that to get the later, i.e. our gratification, we have to give up the former, i.e. the instant. In other words, instant gratification isn’t so gratifying.

Your mother told you that anything worth having is worth waiting for.  And she was right. Marketers that cater to the truly rich, such as bespoke tailors and shoe markers, artists, jewelers, interior designers and even Hermès with its famed waiting list, understand this essential truth.

As retailers and marketers, it is critical that we separate what consumers say they want from what they really are in search of. When people buy things they don’t strictly need, specifically discretionary purchases, which account for at least 70-80% of all retail, their consuming desire is to achieve greater personal fulfillment and happiness.

They make that purchase, whether a new iPhone, a pair of shoes, watch, handbag, piece of furniture, art for the wall, whatever, because they believe that item will make a meaningful difference in the quality of their lives, i.e. greater happiness.

In a culture as materially rich as ours, shopping is driven primarily by emotional, not physical needs. Yet too few retailers and brands really understand how to play to those emotions, since selling them things is what they have been trained for and always have done.

Luxury marketers are in the happiness business

Despite what we have long believed, retail today is primarily a people, not a product business. Rather than just selling people products, we ultimately need to focus on fulfilling their emotional desires. That will result in greater happiness for our customers and ultimately greater business success.

To understand our real goal of delivering customer happiness, we need to look at the psychological and behavioral sciences for direction. Fortunately, Dan Clay and John Marshall, members of the innovation team at Lippincott, a global creative consultancy and subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan Companies, have done the work for us in a new report “The Happiness Halo.”

Their premise: “Appeal to customers’ reason and they’re yours for a day. Appeal to customers’ emotions and they’re yours for a lifetime.” To do that, they identify three stages in the customers’ path to purchase when retailers and brands have the ability to emotionally impact their customers’ lives. “Happiness is as much about how we look forward to [anticipation] and look back on an event [afterglow] as it is the event itself [interaction].”

Clay and Marshall place equal emphasis on each of these stages – anticipation, interaction and afterglow – and provide strategies for brands to engage emotionally with customers along the way. However, I think the most crucial stage in the Happiness Halo is in customers’ anticipation of greater happiness to come. They write, “Positive expectations influence a person’s overall happiness as much as actual experiences,” citing research by Robb B. Rutledge, et. al., out of University College London. I would amend that statement to say “more influence” based on other research.

Professor Marsha Richins, University of Missouri, conducted a comprehensive study of how consumers’ expectations influence their ultimate satisfaction with a material goods purchase. Entitled “When Wanting is Better that Having,” Richins found, “Positive emotions were strongest before the purchase was made, as respondents thought about acquiring and using the product. This hedonic elevation was more pronounced for higher-cost goods.” In simple English, people were happier as they anticipated a purchase, with their happiness levels declining during and after the purchase was made. In particular, their joy, excitement and contentment peaked before their purchase.

This finding was mirrored by researcher Jeroen Nawijn in a study entitled “Happiness is…looking forward to your vacation.” People’s vacation happiness peaks during the eight-week period before their holiday experience rather than afterwards. While Nawijn studied vacations specifically, there is no reason to assume it doesn’t apply to other purchases, particularly higher-ticket expenditures that take some planning and consideration, like that for a luxury good.

People’s imagination is tantalized and their excitement and engagement grow in anticipating the purchase experience to come.

People’s imagination is tantalized and their excitement and engagement grow in anticipating the purchase experience to come. That pre-purchase anticipation is a big part of the total customer experience. Retailers and brands will benefit by building it, heightening it and extending it with the result that greater, not lesser, customer satisfaction results.

In effect, how brands and retailers “set the table” for the purchase experience to come yields a more satisfied, gratified and happier customer. That is exactly what Brian Wansink, Professor and Director of the famed Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, discovered in a study of how people’s expectations of a dining experience affect their ultimate satisfaction.

In the experiment, his group served the exact same food to two different groups. One group was served the meal in typical fast-food fashion and the other was presented the same food in a fine dining setting. The only difference between the two groups was how the food was presented and served, not what the food was. The result: the fast-food dining group rated the food they were served 3 points on a 10-point scale. The fine dining group rated the food 8.4 points on the same scale.

The food, its taste and texture (i.e. the product) was exactly the same, what differed were the diners’ expectations which were elevated for the fine dining group. Those elevated expectations resulted in much higher overall satisfaction from the experience. They were more gratified.

Instant gratification denies customers an anticipation experience

Retailers’ and brands’ greatest opportunity today is to get out in front of the customers’ experience and help them anticipate an exciting experience to unfold through the purchase and enjoyment of that purchase. Instant gratification strips that anticipatory experience from them. As a result, their overall happiness with their purchase, the interaction, and the afterglow can be compromised.

In “The Happiness Halo” report, Clay and Marshall offer these suggestions to enhance customers’ anticipation to more positively impact customers’ emotions throughout the interaction and afterglow stages of purchase.

  • Tease – What can your brand hide to build excitement during anticipation?

Humans are “hard-wired to prioritize ‘seeking’ over ‘finding,” so the searching and waiting for something wonderful to buy is often more rewarding than actually buying it. This explains consumers’ extensive pursuit of pre-purchase research, a phenomenon I have observed often in research with consumers, even as they complain about leading hectic, time-crunched lives. That time spent researching and planning a purchase is rewarding in and of itself.

Another tease that builds anticipation is the waiting list like Apple is doing for the new iPhones it unveiled on September 12. Consumers will have to wait till mid-October to pre-order their new X phones, while they could immediately pre-order the lower-cost iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. But no matter which phone they want, they still have the tease of a wait after their pre-order.

  • Tempt –What can your brand expose to give customers something to look forward to?

Research shows that people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them – like the new Apple iPhones and how masterfully the company manages the introduction of their new products. It also explains the stage craft designed into runway fashion shows.

Every weekend at Costco you can see brands tempting shoppers through sampling. BMW offers its famed driving school, not just for brand owners but to tempt potential buyers by experiencing first hand the handling excellence of the cars. And Apple is working the tease and tempt simultaneously with the new iPhones, as Business Insiderreports the pre-orders of iPhone 8 are low as people wait to see it and the iPhone X side-by-side.

  • Make it a treat – What moments of your brand experience might be a limited-time treat for customers, and how can you frame them that way?

Author Robert Cialdini in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion writes “Everything’s more attractive when availability is limited,” think seasonal treats like Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, Samuel Adams OctoberFest beer, Cadbury Creme Eggs, and Girl Scout cookies.

Limited editions of a finite quantity of a particular item greatly enhance the appeal. It’s an essential part of the luxury branding equation since ubiquity of a luxury product is death for a luxury brand. Luxury goods have got to be limited to be special and worth the premium a customer will pay.

In conclusion, while consumers say and believe that they want what they want when they want it, brands that cave to their demands for instant gratification may be doing their customers, and ultimately their brands, a disservice by stripping away the customers’ emotional anticipation for something wonderful to come.

Enhancing the emotional reward for customers, not simply satisfying their perceived physical need for a product, is how retailers and brands can create that customer for a lifetime, as Maya Angelou reminds us, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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