The U.S. baby care market is booming. By 2017 sales are expected to increase to $66.8 billion. While the average number of births still hover around 4 million each year, people are waiting longer to start families. Some suggest that this growth can be attributed to the increase in disposable income families have as they wait longer to start. One driver of sales in this market is through baby registries. Even though the number of gifts per registry is on the decline, the amount spent has increased. Interestingly, much of the purchasing is done within the store. The primary driver of in-store sales, not surprisingly, is clothing and layettes.
In a marketing research class we explored a case study on the baby registry process. A major retail brand wanted to improve their dwindling sales in the registry department. The brand hired a research firm to conduct an ethnography of the process. The firm’s analysis produced the idea that soon-to-be parents embed a sense of ritual and rite of passage into this process.
In terms of ritual, the registry process should accent this marked event. The researchers used the phrase: “a halo of specialness” surrounds this event for couples. For example, clothing and layettes allow parents to begin envisioning the life of their new born. In terms of this process being a rite of passage, soon-to-be parents begin envisioning themselves as parents. These parents are now making decision as parents (child safety, security, environment and feeding). This is a critical moment in registrants lives, and delivering on this moment has the potential to build long-term brand loyalty.
I mention all of this because I had my first baby registry experience at a large retailer. My wife and I were expecting, and have since given birth to a beautiful baby girl. As we discussed where we would go and the types of items we would look at, I realized our expectations were very different. I saw this as a very transactional experience. She saw this as a special moment (these would be the very items that would either interact with our first child, support, or protect them for the first few years of her life- both ritual and rite of passage). Colors were predetermined, furniture envisioned and emotions attached. Similar to registering for a wedding, this wasn’t just a shopping trip. This trip was to be fun, relaxed and serendipitous weekend journey. In fact, this is what most moms envision. Mothers’ in-store experiences are much stronger when they believe that this experience was crafted to meet their expectations. A pretty important insight moving forward.
We decided to register at Bye Bye Baby. The experience was nothing like my wife envisioned. A week later, as my wife showed me some additional items she registered for on Restoration Hardware’s site, I asked her what was more fun. She enjoyed the RH experience, online, much better. This isn’t an indictment on any of Bye Bye Baby’s employees. They were all knowledgeable and helpful. But I found it interesting that a website was able to delver on all of the expectations my wife had about the experience.
Here are a few things I knew going into the experience:
- First, it would be a long day. My guess is that couples spend differing amount of times on the process, but I would doubt anyone does it in less than an hour. Aside from the time, here is a moment that we are not comparing prices and selecting items from different stores.
- Second, we heard beforehand that we shouldn’t let the registry consultant take us around. We will end up with items on our registry we ultimately don’t want. In essence, do not use the resource that the store had hired to service this very specific purpose.
As Pine and Gilmore (2009) would argue, this is the perfect opportunity to stage an experience. “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”. Registering for the first time, with a specific brand, is a perfect example of a “personal” and “memorable” experience.
As I wrote above, registering is a huge time investment. In Pine and Gilmore’s Experience Economy they stated: “Companies should think about what they would do differently if they charged admission”. Would I pay for the opportunity to register with this retailer?
According to Pine and Gilmore, experience is composed of two dimensions. The first dimension is customer participation (passive-active). Secondly, there is the relationship that is built between the customer and the environment (absorption-immersion).
Understanding the type of experience the customer should have, will enable the brand to design the experience accordingly. It would be easy to argue that registering is firmly set in the realm of “education”, but I think it also fits under “escapist”. In our experience there was absolutely zero communication cues that affirmed the nature of this experience. The experience did not show that it was designed to meet any expectations.
Much of the word-of-mouth literature would show that a consequence of a negative experience, or one that does not match a customer’s expectation, is an increase in the likelihood of sharing that experience with others. Interestingly, my wife was told by multiple people not to use any of the consultants. Whether or not the registering went smoothly, her friends felt strongly that their experience was simply not set up to create any lasting impression. Personally, our lukewarm experience was a much more lively story to tell than any of our small successes during the process. In fact, this supports many of the reasons consumers decide to share our experiences with products and services (emotional valence, utility, customer service).
There is a big opportunity to explore the expectations and behaviors of mothers in this space. Even simple cues that create a special and personal experience would be the first step in designing an active and escapist/educational experience. Soon-to-be parents put a lot of thought into what goes on the registry. The ability to aid and enhance the thought process during this time would alter the experience tremendously.