What does the great chef tell us about the visitor experience?

Who’s seen the film Chef? It’s a fab ‘finding yourself’ story about a talented Chef’s journey back from rock bottom. Along the way he not only rediscovers his passion for food, he also rebuilds his relationship with his son and ex wife, all with a food truck selling Cubanos.

The truck was a fixed up wreck, not a fancy restaurant, and the Cubanos weren’t expensive. But the ingredients were great, they were cooked with deep passion and served with respect – in a word it was authentic. Word spread, the Son tweeted and queues formed around the block. People found this experience of buying a Cubanos awesome enough to wait in a long line.

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And that’s what I loved about this story. It wasn’t about the glitz but all about the experience and showing what happens when people find a great one.

But why don’t we feel great after leaving a mall? We should right – we’re there for fun – shopping, socializing, eating, drinking, all great things. Maybe its because we don’t get that sense of passion, care and the authentic feeling like the people were experiencing with Chefs Cubanos. But it shouldn’t be so.

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Despite the continuous growth of the shopping mall industry some suggest that it’s now at a critical inflection point. Malls are no longer the primary shopping place. The E-commerce revolution and digital technologies have put paid to that. It’s blindingly obvious that Malls will never be able to compete with the product range and price comparisons that are available online. Nor should they try. Instead, malls need to move away from commoditised shopping experiences and towards a proposition of consumer value creation, where they have a massive advantage over the online world. There’s no coincidence that various on-line giants are developing brick and mortar offers. How else can they provide experience and create emotional ties with their customers.

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People are looking for brands to provide something deeper than product or services and with malls, they are looking for experiences that go well beyond what’s typically on offer. They want emotional connection and experiences – not value for money, but value for experience.

In our digital era with social human interactions declining there’s never been a greater need for physical places where people can socialise and congregate. Innovative shopping malls should sell social needs like emotions and interactions. It’s the satisfaction of these core psychological drivers which will transform the mall into the new downtown, providing a leisure and entertainment experience that can never be satisfied online.

If the mall is to remain Victor Gruen’s ‘3rd place’, these are issues the industry must move rapidly to address.

‘Welcome to the experience economy…’

The Harvard Business Review suggests that the entire history of economic progress can be very generally described with 4 stages of economic value evolution over time. From product commoditisation, to goods manufacturing, to service design and then customer experience.

Many businesses and industries have already responded to that change by explicitly designing and creating valuable experiences for customers, experiences that sell.

In the meantime, the shopping centre industry sits on the touchline. The wider industry does not yet appear to fully realise how incredible this change is and what competitive opportunities lie in staging experiences. The Harvard Business Review also tell us “An experience occurs when a company intentionally uses services as the stage, and goods as props, to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event.”

So here’s a question for you. How would you do things differently if you had to charge customers to enter your mall? Theme parks, hotels and restaurants do. They get it. They understand that people love the experience and they will pay a lot for a great one.

Remember, the experience happens in the mind of a customer who is engaged on a emotional, physical and intellectual level – they are inherently personal. It’s one-on-one. This is a shift from service transactions to personal interaction and experience creation. It may be a relatively new concept in the retail industry, but it’s has been the foundation of successful restaurant and hotel businesses.

Take Planet Hollywood and the House of Blues. These are theme restaurants where the food is just a prop for “eatertainment.”.

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Or the unique Library Hotel in New York. The floors and rooms tie into the Dewy Decimal System, and depending on what floor or room you are in, you will have a different experience.

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The Hotel Fox boutique art hotel in Denmark has their own take on creating a unique experience for their guests. Every one of their rooms has been designed by a different artist. When a guest checks in, they are given a virtual tour on a computer of the different rooms that are available. Then the guest chooses the room that is most appealing.

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Shopping centres need to change their mental model, they have to be more customer centric, agile and service orientated. Everything should have as it ultimate focus the improvement of your customers’ experience. Think about what that means next time you do a market study and start grouping customers into demographic segments. It might have worked in the past but perhaps it’s too shallow for today.

With this, the balance of power is shifting dramatically from malls and retailers to the customers, Malls have to be much more than just a collection of stores. Today, we see a trend of moving the tenant/public space from 70/30 to 60/40 or even 50/50. McKinsey,2014 

And we also see malls, ‘de-malling’. Ripping roofs off, becoming lifestyle centres or specialist places all in the quest of customer engagement. Look at Markthal in Rotterdam. Not a fashion store in sight.

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We also understand how important customer service and service design is. Most organizations believe that they provide either good or excellent customer service. The Forrester State of Customer Experience report begs to differ. They show that consumers think just 31% of brands provide a good experience, while only 8% provide an excellent experience.

When you also consider that the CEI reports that 86% of buyers say they’re willing to pay more for a better customer experience, the size of the task (and opportunity) starts to hove into view. Let me just repeat that statistic 86% – Wow! 86% of your customers WANT to pay more.

Maybe the future is all about more specialist places. Maybe not. But one thing that should be at the top of everyone’s list is the creation of experience. It could be a suspension of disbelief like theatre, or like entering another world such as in a theme park – or it could be like Chef’s food truck and his Cubanos – simple perfectly put together, deeply authentic and served up with passion.

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Alan Robertson