Standing in line this morning at a Manhattan Starbucks, I noticed how about forty coffees had accumulated near the “pick up” area. Another woman and I waited to place an order the “old fashioned” way. In the past, there might be twenty people waiting to order in such a manner.
Person after person trotted in, eyed up the massive coffees, slightly turning them to check names on the little stickers applied to the cups, and then with emotionless “thanks,” they were gone.
Next to this area was a chalkboard enlivened with hand-drawn leaves, pumpkins and some other typical autumn accoutrements. On the board was the promise that Starbucks was building a community, a place where everyone could come and feel “like they are home.”
That’s a wonderful sentiment and as a brand-builder and marketer, I too used to embed those kinds of words into the ads I crafted. We thought consumers wanted to hear that stuff and we were right. Most people want to be a part of something bigger, “the promise” which translates into an aspirational choice. By using our product, your life will be better; it will be transformed.
As I stood there, I reminisced about how powerful the Starbucks brand was — it used to be my anchor. No matter where I was in the world, I sought it out. I picked hotels that had one or two shops not far from me — unless I was in Italy because there massive, American style coffees could never be popular. COVID happened and my need to be a part of that “family” was broken. I was okay with that ended relationship, though.
While I did indeed miss my Starbucks experience, eventually a local coffee kiosk, not far from my home in St. Petersburg, loosened the Seattle-based barrister’s hold on me. I was lucky, really, because I knew the secret. I understood the process of the buttons being pressed by the brainy creatives whose jobs it was to hook the consumers. Love brand A instead of brand B and all will be perfect.
But what happens when those ties are severed and the relationships between purchases and facilitator of sale, the shop clerk, the cashier, no longer exist? This is what happened during COVID.
Shopping Is Gone and With It Family
Like many people in modern industrialized societies, Americans are very active shoppers. Shopping for many of us is not just something we do to feed ourselves, but it something we need to do to feel whole. The act of entering the store, being recognized with a hearty hello by a person who is for all intents and purposes a stranger, and sometimes for years at a time, is an interaction as needed as the air we breath.
When it’s suddenly gone, and people are told to stay home and avoid others, they find themselves in an odd way, orphaned from the multitude of brand and shopping experiences. Store A informs its employees that all customers are right and must be pampered. The caprice of customers should be met with a smile. Customers are never wrong.
Along came COVID and many of us were forced to shop solely using home delivery or curbside pick-up. No longer the object of attention of the gum-cracking “hey there, baby” of the cashier, the mildly-depressed customer, who used to pop by every morning for a cup of coffee and a slice of pound cake at the Wawa, suddenly feels even more detached from society. Lost, with thoughts caving in on him, he loses the skills he barely clung to before COVID that helped him remain civil.
How many Americans lost the only social interaction they really had? Or, if not the only one, the one that gave them the greatest pleasure. It is a nice feeling to have the store clerk, waitress or flight attendant recognize us, right? Few of us are immune to those pleasant little bonuses — “Hey there, good to see you again.” Looking into the eyes of the store representative, you think for a second, are they are sincere? But then you figure, ah, who cares. Good to see you, also.
The world lost these interactions. We weren’t allowed to speak to people. When speaking, we needed to keep a safe distance away from them and when up close, masks were worn to not only hide the expressions on our faces; but to also remind us that it was better to limit the small talk and just move along as quickly as possible.
Many talk about how people seem angrier since COVID began. I recently wrote about the anger in society. I blamed it partially on the Trump effect; and, while everything Trump did tore us apart, an already atomized society was pushed over the edge by COVID. The restrictions on shopping not only pushed us further away from each other, but also undermined for many the only foundation we knew: A visualization of self through the eyes of marketers, as customers, clients and part of a multitude of families.
A day could’ve been made up of retail experiences beginning with Starbucks, Applebee’s, Target, Costco and then Domino’s — the delivery guy before COVID might have lingered a bit; chatted about who was winning. COVID eviscerated these small, meaningless, but really oh-so important moments from our lives. Retail catered to our whims and made us feel special and then it was gone — you aren’t just not so special anymore but you may even be infected.
With so much of our retail experience now done online or without any human interaction at all, self-check outs, pay in advance, pay so it automatically goes from your card before even the first item is rung up, no one needs to interact.
We are genuinely in a time where human interaction is becoming one of those behaviors that grandparents used to tell us about: Yep, back then, people used to walk up town after dinner and have an ice cream, just stroll a bit — and then TV was invented, cars became affordable for the masses and it all stopped.
Maybe I am ringing this bell too soon; but the goal of marketing is to make people feel alive when using a given product. The retail experience is just any other product. Marketers spend countless hours brainstorming how to make a trip to the store as seamless, and gratifying, as possible. With the massive shift to online shopping, people suddenly realized that their adored brands were no longer leaving them so fulfilled — something was amiss.
And then, they got angry.