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‘The joy of not yet’: why marketers need to sell anticipation, not just products

By Scott McKenzie | Founder

May 24, 2021 | 6 min read

Waiting for a product to arrive is an exciting thing. That’s why marketers need to make certain that they are curating the experience customers have when they are buying, waiting for and then receiving an item, says Nielsen IT’s Scott McKenzie. Here’s what you need to do to leverage ‘the power of anticipation’.

Open a package

Now the journey of a package to your door is a whole new gratification experience

A few months back, a friend of mine – who is paid to notice things – noticed something.

It was the way people anticipated the arrival of their online purchases. He called it ‘the joy of not yet’. Brands, too often, focus on the product or its performance at the expense of understanding the inherent value in the journey from purchase to delivery.

Covid-19 forced an overhaul of how we experience physical stores – fast in-and-out, solo shopping requirements, reimagined layouts, and changes in ‘typical’ assortment. As a result, our expectations were fundamentally reset. And in a world where we have become more dependent on online deliveries in our lives – case in point, online consumer packaged goods sales in the US now account for about 13% of dollars spent in the sector – we have also come to adjust our expectations around how purchases touch us beyond just exchanging money for goods and services.

This brings us to the thorny question of shopper experience and our expectations of a physical visit to a supermarket or other retail outlet versus an online order. The global health crisis transported us to confront new levels of anxiety in our lives. These anxieties spun around everything from personal hygiene and vaccines to availability of day-to-day items in grocery stores.

However, these anxieties also forced us to look for relief valves – moments in our long days, weeks and months of the pandemic where we could look forward to something positive. That feeling is part of the power of anticipation, that moment of engagement brands and retailers can have with a consumer looking for a joyous moment in their day.

The power of the arrival and the start of an occasion

Few people enjoy waiting for a product. If they have paid for it, they want it. Period. But what if they could be excited by the mere promise of that product arriving? What if we could create a level of joy around the experience of buying it? Particularly products that in normal times wouldn’t necessarily warrant a second thought.

Well, we have. Just look at the rise of direct-to-consumer food and beverage products. If you’re one of the millions who bought food products such as restaurant-quality meat or cheese from a supplier challenged by the closure of hospitality outlets last year, you’re not alone. Many of these suppliers have continued to meet the growing demand that appeared overnight during the pandemic.

But it is the experience of that purchase, the anticipation of that special product delivery, that makes a difference. Its arrival is not just the end result of a purchase, it’s the start of an occasion. It starts with the notification that your credit card purchase has been approved and follows a path of rising anticipation as the product makes its way to your door. Those once annoying text updates on the status of a delivery, the delivery driver’s name, the exact time window for the delivery are increasingly value drivers around the initial transaction... they signal the moment that product gratification can begin. You’ve thought about it, you’ve talked about it, and now you’ve got it.

Learning from the mistakes of the music industry

We should expect more of this. Savvy retailers and brands recognize the power of making their consumers part of the experience and curate the process accordingly. Now they are doubling down. It helps consumers play a much more active role in the product discovery process while remaining relevant all the way through to that knock on the door by the delivery driver.

However, the pressure to create more joy in the shopping experience comes with a price tag. In pre-Covid times, retailers dumped a fortune into in-store experiences. They then spent even more money on advertising to demonstrate in-store differentiation. Unfortunately, Covid erased some of the value consumers saw in those enhanced store experiences. Instead, they found new retail experiences, increasingly via online storefronts. And they’re sticking with them.

There will be a tendency among some brands and retailers to resist the changes consumers have made in further shifting their habits to online. They’ll do so to try to preserve the more profitable brick-and-mortar dollars versus the often less profitable online dollars. That would be a mistake. The shift was already playing out, Covid just accelerated it.

Other industries have tried and failed to resist such change, even without the forced influence of a pandemic. The music industry resisted online music sales and demands for the unbundling of albums. The newspaper industry (mostly) failed to find new business models as content moved online. Both are smaller because of it.

Retailers and brands have an opportunity to create more moments of joy and anticipation around purchase. As humans, we’re natural problem solvers and want to be part of the entire buying equation. We want active anticipation and to be part of our buying journey. Winning brands and retailers will run towards that opportunity.

Scott McKenzie is the global head of the NielsenIQ Intelligence Unit.

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