Experience Blog

The Ethnography of Experience

In Praise of the Mundane

Gary David, PhD

An experience arms race is heating up. Companies are being faced with the challenge of trying to provide not only timely service and quality products, but also an “experience.” As Pine and Gilmore, in their classic book The Experience Economy, call out to businesses, “To realize revenue growth and increased employment, the staging of experiences must be pursued as a distinct for of economic output.” They continue on in the next sentence to conclude “the greatest opportunity for value creation resides in staging experience.” 

Ain't no party like a birthday party

Ain't no party like a birthday party

Staging experiences can be tricky business when considering that others are trying to stage their own experiences. You can see the problem here if you ever experienced parents engaging in the sport of competitive birthday party hosting. In an era of undifferentiated birthday parties for toddlers, how is your birthday party going to stand out? On a given weekend, you might be battling with any number of competitors who are trying to take your birthday party customers away from you. You think a sheet cake, balloons, and dollar-store party favors are going to cut it. No sir and ma’am. You need a birthday party EXPERIENCE! Otherwise you and your toddler will be left with a lot of sheet cake, balloons, and future therapy costs for the party that never was. 

Hang around enough toddler birthday parties (I suggest you do this only if you have a toddler attending said party) and you are likely to hear parents talk about how simpler and quaint parties were when they were growing up. Parties were just pin the tail on the donkey, piñatas, and maybe visit from a knock-off Disney character. 

I was reminded of a simpler time when going to the grocery store in my town. I have studied grocery stores, done field work in them, read about their approaches at service design, and do the grocery shopping for my family. I even served on a community standards committee where we did spot inspections of grocery stores in Detroit to see if they were up to code and standards. I am well acquainted with the grocery store. However, nothing in my past experiences would prepare me for what I experienced on that day.



Flying through the aisles on the way home from work, I was making good time. As I rounded the final corner in the turn for home, I was stopped in my tracks. There in front of the checkout lanes were the cashiers, standing there and staring at me. They were not in their spots where they were supposed to be, buttressed by the conveyor belts and cash registers. They had escaped their confines, and now roamed free. Rather than attack, the cashiers turned their heads, locked their eyes on me, and showed their teeth. It might have been smiles they were exhibiting, but I wasn’t sure as time slowed down to a standstill.

I surmised that I now had to pick which aisle, and which cashier, I would use. That’s a lot of pressure as they stared at me, and I didn’t want to let any of them down by not picking them. How would I be judged for my choice? What would they think of me? Do I pick the one closest to me? But maybe that always happens, and the other two suffer from a kind of structural discrimination by virtue where their register was located. I could address this injustice and commit an act of heroism that would potentially right the wrongs of the past. If I picked the younger cashier, would the older cashiers feel that I was being ageist? 

The larger question was why had this change been made? I used to select the checkout in my own private world, away from the watchful eyes of others. Now this. I asked my newly selected checkout person, “Why were you standing at the front of the aisle and not behind the register.” She sigh and quietly related, “This is a new thing we are trying to greet the customers.” I could see a consultant pitching the idea as a way of moving their NPS scores at least 5 ticks, translating it to millions in revenue gained. “Do you like doing it?” I inquired. “No, I don’t.” I thought about the repeated trips through the aisle to the register, and back again. What we had before worked for everyone. They got to hang at the register, I got to blast through the aisle on my way home. We would part as friends. Now things were awkward, and I didn’t want them to be.

In the article, “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers,” Dixon, Freeman, and Toman speak of their research findings which indicate, “Telling frontline reps to exceed customers’ expectations is apt to yield confusion, wasted time and effort, and costly giveaways. Telling them to ‘make it easy’ gives them a solid foundation for action.” By making it easy, they mean removing obstacles, like standing in front of the checkout aisle. There was no need for this experience enhancement. No one was asking for it, no one (at least me) wanted it, and it served no actual purpose. I was not delighted, and I wanted them to stop it.

Upon a repeat visit, they had stopped it. The cashiers were back in their register bunkers, and I was on my side of the conveyor belt. I was free to select my aisle without being observed. The process worked as it always had. And for this I was thankful, as were the cashiers.

All the smiles

All the smiles

This doesn’t mean that no experience enhancement is necessary. One feature noticeably absent from my grocery store encounters is eye contact. This phenomenon goes back to when I was observing grocery stores in Detroit. It is amazing (or at least interesting) how much coordinated activity happens at the register in the absence of eye contact. A simple interactional enhancement may do more to improve the experience, without re-engineering the whole encounter. A genuinely smiling cashier can go a long way.

In a frantic world of constant demands and changing terrain, sometimes you just want the mundane experience. It fits, and it works. As companies look to continuously enhance experience, they need to make sure they are enhancing the right kind of experience and keep it in the lane where it belongs.