When the price buys you more than the product

Facing shoppers saturated with goods, sellers now try marketing

Some future Christmas, it may not be enough to track down that new cybernetic Mickey Mouse doll and wrap it up.

You might be expected to bundle in, say, a trip to Disney Universe, too. Any smart marketer will tell you: Each new wave of consumers is more interested than the last in doing things rather than in just having things.

In response to that evolution, companies are racing to include experiences with their products to grab the attention of oversaturated American consumers.

It's called "experience marketing." And in an age of widespread product parity - and towering discretionary spending - it is becoming a major selling tool.

It's also likely to be effective.

Bruce Tulgan, president of Rainmaker Thinking in New Haven, Conn., says Generation X consumers look not at products, but autonomy and experience, as status symbols.

For them, he says, it's not about who has "most toys," but rather "who has done the most."

The seeds of experience marketing were first planted in the 1970s, as basic goods became commonplace inside most American homes. "The number of new food and household products introduced each year has increased 15- and 20-fold since 1970," writes Jeff Madrick, in the "New York Review of Books" March 1998.

Today, even luxury items have become so common that they've lost their ability to "wow," says Marian Salzman, who runs the Brand Futures Group at the international ad agency Young & Rubicam.

As a result, product developers are turning everything up a notch to gain and sustain customers' interest, making products bigger, brighter, faster, smaller, more portable, and so on, says Ms. Salzman.

And still, they're running out of areas to improve.

So now they're turning to better service and sales experience to build customer loyalty, bolster their brand names, and ultimately charge more for their offerings.

Enter the experience sellers.

Now SUV-makers such as Jeep and Land Rover not only tout the rugged outdoor image of their vehicles, they sell backwoods excursions so customers can drive in areas that the vehicles were originally designed to handle.

Likewise, outdoor equipmentmakers and retailers pair their products with adventure trips that range from local bird-watching expeditions to Mt. Everest climbs.

The idea may catch on with today's consumers, who want to create full, flexible, diverse lives, says Salzman. They want to sample as many things as possible, so the "portions" must be kept manageable, she adds.

Experience marketing will likely be used initially to sell expensive products and adventures, experts say.

Aficionados of places like Switzerland, or activities like mountain climbing, will pay a lot to indulge their interests, even if they spend less on other basics, says Watts Wacker, a futurist at the think tank SRI International in Palo Alto, Calif.

Some consumers may focus their resources on trendy clothing, luxury cars, or adventure travel. Others may overspend in the kitchen - or on dining out.

Further into the future, Mr. Wacker expects consumers from lower income levels will come in contact with experience marketing.

If a chain restaurant, for example, already adopts the aura of a Canadian hunting lodge, it might up the wattage on that concept by, for example, running real-time video feeds from the Canadian Rockies to boost the diners'sense of place.

In any case, few "products" will be left standing alone in the New Economy, says Wacker: "You won't really have products or services, only offerings." In other words, an intricate combination of products, services, experiences, and information.

Experience marketing can be virtual or real, offer adventure or convenience, and be extended by retailers or manufacturers. It can also result from simple partnerships between businesses.

Some developments identified by trend-watchers:

*The continued rise of the elaborate "demo" by both retailers and manufacturers.

Land Rover and Jeep already offer off-road adventures from Land Rover's ice-driving schools in Vermont and Colorado to week-long Jeep Jamboree adventures and afternoon courses for urban customers.

"It's a great tool for repeat sales," says Andy Schupack, a spokesman for Jeep in Rhode Island. "They're social events and an opportunity to learn the capabilities of their vehicles."

*In-store opportunities for customers to experience products before they buy them.

REI stores nationwide offer artificial rock-climbing walls where customers can try out climbing gear.

The chain's downtown Seattle headquarters store even has a "rain booth" for testing how dry a customer stays in different jackets, pants, boots, and gloves.

*An increase in "virtual" on-site experiences.

Patrons of Bloomington, Minn.-based Caf Odyssey restaurants sit in rooms corresponding to different parts of the world - Africa's Serengeti, Alaska's tundra, Australia's outback. Scenes from the region projected on "windows" offer ambiance, complete with sunrise and sunset at the appropriate times of day.

*More experiences that amount to pure entertainment.

Nike Town offers arcade games and videos in addition to shoes and apparel.

Northeastern furniture retailer Jordan's Furniture offers a virtual reality Motion Odyssey Movie Ride, to draw entertainment seekers to its Avon, Mass., store.

*An increase in add-on services that offer conveniences more than adventures.

FirstUSA credit cards come with a concierge service - free on a trial basis - that can make reservations, find directions, or call ahead for you.

General Motors and Mercedes-Benz offer similar, more sophisticated services on many of their cars. Using global-positioning technology, they can look up your location and even call for help if you need it.

In the future, GM plans to offer Internet connectivity and e-mail in its cars.

*More services and information added to product purchases.

Shopping and delivery services partner with everyone from grocery stores to used-bookstores for added convenience. Software-selling Web sites remind you about upgrades.

If manufacturers hope to keep you "brand loyal," they're going to have to offer more than a better mousetrap, Salzman says. "Smart companies understand that true value today doesn't necessarily lie in the product or service - it lies in the concomitant experience."

*E-mail your comments to evarts@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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