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The evolution of cake and consumerism

Let’s talk about cake. Once upon a time we had to put flour, butter, eggs, and sugary goodness together in a pan. By hand. Then Betty Crocker opened up shop, and we started buying premixed ingredients for a few extra dollars.

Flash-forward and we no longer had time (or inclination) to throw Betty’s packaged ingredients in the oven. We wanted top-notch, ready-made cakes, with the option of personalized frosting designs. We had become consumers willing to pay a bit more to walk out of a bakery with a completely customized confection.

Soon, it wasn’t enough to only outsource cakes. Why spend time on balloons or streamers when a birthday party could easily be contracted out to venues like karaoke lounges, bowling alleys, and bars? For a higher cost, we consumers could buy a delicious slice of time—time that could be spent drinking wine with friends and snapping party photos. Which brings us to the experience economy.

Is the experience worth it?

Unknowingly to some consumers, businesses have recently been orchestrating memorable events for us, such that the experience itself has become part of the product. Movie theaters are no longer just a place to watch a film—they’re an event space meant for wining, dining, and socializing. People have come to expect reclining seats and ginormous screens alongside their gourmet popcorn. As the definition of today’s products evolves, and each experience is better than the next, our expectations will rise just as they did with material goods and services. Soon, luxury theater experiences will be considered the norm.

Unknowingly to some consumers, businesses have recently been orchestrating memorable events for us, such that the experience itself has become part of the product.

Similar to how we choose the best cake mix, or birthday party venue, we turn to review sites—Amazon and Yelp—to choose the best experiences. Does the bowling alley down the street throw a better birthday party? Is the escape room downtown as fun as the one in Japantown? Does the movie theater on 7th really have the best wine list?

With the emergence of technologies like YouTube’s 360° Videos, our ability to select which experiences we want to engage in has become easier. Imagine you’re unsure if the musical Hamilton is worth shelling out $400 per ticket. It’s easy to immerse yourself in a 360° snippet (click and drag your mouse back and forth over the video) to see if (and how much) it’s an experience worth buying.

Get up off the couch. No really.

As a society, we’ve developed selective experiencing— Consumers can save valuable time on undesired or mundane experiences (like grocery shopping) with online research and shopping. People can pick and choose how they interact in the world—no more unwanted experiences or wasted time.

Today, a large part of consumerism happens at home first. 59 percent of grocery shoppers write a list before shopping. With so many different brands available, a little bit of online research can save a lot of time at the store—gone are the days of “winging” it. Consumers have turned to online shopping as a way to help manage busy lives. What’s more, 74 percent cited convenience as their primary motivation for online shopping. Thanks to the internet, you can shop during your daily commute, at midnight when most stores are closed, or while watching Netflix. 66 percent shop from the living room, which means you could shop for underwear, eggs, and Nikes at the same exact time, all without having to physically pick items out, wait in line, or force small talk. Talk about multitasking.

There’s a new demographic emerging alongside the experience economy— If you don’t want to leave your house (unless it’s for fun stuff like music festivals or sailing), you don’t have to. Think Seamless, or UberEats. Need some wine for a night in? There’s an app for that. Need a movie to go with that wine? Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go at your service. Need to run an errand? TaskRabbit sends someone to run it for you. Heck, Amazon has everything, and it can be at your door in two days (or two hours, depending on where you live).

With the ability for everyone to become a modern-day hermit, it’s not enough for businesses to just sell a product; they have to sell an experience as well. They need to get you up off the couch. Trader Joe’s has revolutionized the grocery shopping experience and paved the way for other grocers by offering both material goods and a unique, fun experience (as discussed in the Repeat Customer podcast). The company has managed to combine goods and experiences to create a new definition of the word product. As David DiSalvo put it, “Instead of swallowing customers in a sea of color conformity, TJ’s hits you with a splash of color and texture—everything. There’s cedar, there’s brick, there’s bamboo. The colors are vibrant. The scripting on store signs is interesting to read, even if it’s just pointing you to a display of dark chocolate ginger cookies. The setting is comfortably stimulating.”

With the ability for everyone to become a modern-day hermit, it’s not enough for businesses to just sell a product; they have to sell an experience as well.

Selective experiencing leaves more room for activities like surfing or hiking 14 miles over the weekend. People have started to choose which experiences they want to engage in based on convenience and enjoyability.

I’ll take my cake and eat it too

Unless traditional stores start delivering more enjoyable human experiences (as seen with Trader Joe’s), consumers will avoid mundane experiences that take up precious time,

    Consumers will select their experiences on the following:

  1. Does it engage all 5 senses? An experience that effectively engages sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste, is more likely to be memorable because there are more ways to leave an impression. Let’s say you go to a haunted house and all the props are visual. That’s likely to be a let-down, even if the sets are gory. But if the life-like ghoul committing heinous acts on a human (actor) is paired with the scent of rotting food, things falling from the ceiling, visceral screams, and the taste of battery acid in the air—well, that will probably get you. Together, the engagement of all five senses makes for an unforgettable Halloween experience. If that’s what you’re into.

  2. Is it themed, branded, or focused? If you suddenly see a bright, colorful unicorn in the corridors of a haunted house, it’s going to feel out of place and disrupt your experience. You’re going to spend the next fifteen minutes and the entire car ride home wondering why there was a unicorn when there should have been a masked guy with a chainsaw. The entirety of an experience should tie back into a unified story-line that a customer can get behind.

  3. Does it leave an indelible impression? If the monster at the entrance of the haunted house warns, “Most people don’t make it out alive,” as they usher you through the door into darkness, you’re going to feel more immersed in the adventure versus if they say, “Your group is ready.” In the world of experiences, details matter, and they should support the theme.

We still want to eat cake. But we may not want to eat our birthday treat at the kitchen table. We may want our cake inside a spinning restaurant or a Halloween-themed bowling alley in July. We’re picking and choosing the way we engage in today’s consumerism, for better or worse. The real question is, what’s after the experience economy?

Amanda Roosa is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. When she's not petting other people's dogs, she's exploring where technology and humanity converge. Find her on Twitter: @mandyroosa.