A Big Mistake Most Retailers Make

Experiences are more meaningful than things.

A customer named Lisa walks into your store.

As she roams the aisles, her eyes gaze at an endless sea of colors and forms. She isn’t overwhelmed; she’s accustomed to endless choice.

Her mind is elsewhere. Something her daughter asked her this morning amuses her. She feels joy. Now she wonders if her husband kissed her before he left for work. A feeling of disconnection comes and goes.

Lisa’s attention shifts momentarily to an item on the rack. Something about it speaks to her.

She advances closer, feeling the material in her hand. The sensation is pleasant.

Lisa’s eyes shift to the price tag. She compares the items to others she has purchased and viewed before. Too expensive.

She walks on, returning to her inner world while her conscious mind scans the items in the store.

The Inner World of Your Customer

Lisa might buy something from you today, or not. If she finds something she loves and makes a purchase, she might feel good for a time. But that good feeling will fade quickly.

Material possessions do not provide lasting happiness.1 But you already know that.

The above illustration helps explain why. We spend a good deal of our time in our own subjective worlds. How we feel weighs more on us than what we own.

We toggle between our own inner world of thoughts and feelings and our outer world of people, things, and our environment.

Although both the inner and outer greatly define us, it is the inner world of our subjective experiences that provides meaning and lasting impact on our memory.

Selling Things versus Experiences

Cult Brands and other successful businesses don’t focus on selling things. Instead, they sell experiences. More specifically, they sell lifestyles.

When you’re selling a lifestyle, you’re supporting customers in making experiential purchases.

When customers purchase a Harley, they aren’t just buying a motorcycle, they’re gaining membership into a big family that values freedom on the open road.

When customers buy a pair of Vans, they are reinforcing their membership in the skateboarding community. They are also celebrating freedom from the responsibilities and conventions of adult life.

And when they buy Vans from online retailer Zappos, they are further buying into an experience of happiness.

The Power of Experiential Purchases

Experiences are more meaningful than things. Experiential purchases are long-lasting relative to the fleeting feelings that come from simply buying a new article of clothing or some other thing.

Psychologists Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich offer three reasons why experiential purchases trump strictly material purchases:

  1. Experiential purchases are more open to positive reinterpretation. Our memories are very malleable over time. Even if your family trip to Disney World was marked by long lines and crying kids, over time your mind can edit out those setbacks and focus on the fun moments you had together.
  2. Experiential purchases are a more meaningful part of one’s identity. We define ourselves more by our experiences than by what we wear or drive. MINI doesn’t just sell cars, they sell the “MINI experience” through events like MINI Takes the States tours.
  3. Experiential purchases have greater social value. We enjoy sharing the stories of our experiences with friends and colleagues (especially on social networks, nowadays). Sharing these personal experiences helps foster social relationships, especially with like-minded individuals.2

Unlike material goods, experiential purchases don’t lose their luster or their “wearability” over time. Associated memories of these purchases can improve with age.

The Business of Selling Experience

Your job as marketers is to create experiences that your customers will remember, enjoy, and talk about for years to come.

What are you in the business of selling?

  • Are you selling a pair of jeans, or a laid back weekend with friends?
  • Are you selling an MP3 player, or an unlimited treasure chest of their favorite music?
  • Are you selling bulk loose tea, or an elixir that stimulates the mind and enlivens the spirit?
  • Are you selling boats, or a vessel of adventure and freedom to explore the open waters?

You get the idea.


  1. Travis J. Carter and Thomas Gilovich, “The relative relativity of material and experiential purchases,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2010.
  2. Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich, “To Do or to Have? That Is the Question,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003.
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