Consumer Corner: Retail rituals have pitfalls if not done well

Cele Otnes (Courtesy University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana)
Cele Otnes (Courtesy University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana)

CHICAGO, Aug. 6 (UPI) -- We've all been there: sitting in a restaurant, enjoying a quiet meal when the waitstaff comes charging through with a cupcake topped by a candle and singing some form of "Happy Birthday."

A targeted 7-year-old may be thrilled; a 30-year-old, not so much.


The secret to whether this sort of attention translates into repeat business is all in how it's done, said Cele Otnes, a business professor and marketing expert at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

"When done well, (marketing rituals) can be huge sources of bondedness," Otnes said. The problem, however, is that many such rituals are not well thought out or well executed and wind up annoying customers rather than making them loyal, repeat clients.

Otnes presented research on the topic recently at the European Association for Consumer Research Conference at Royal Holloway University of London.


Otnes found that workers in costume who give polished performances made customers feel special and left a positive impression.

The now-defunct Marshall Field's department store chain was a master of ritual.

"Consumers mourn the loss of cherished retail stores. They (Field's) had excellent customer service. Going to the bargain basement was a tradition. Then there were the Christmas windows, the Walnut Room, the incredible amount of attention paid to you shopping for wedding dresses and prom dresses," Otnes said. "You really see the poignancy that can be evoked when retailers do these rituals right. …

"Consumers claim them as their own traditions. They don't think of them as a marketing offering anymore."

Another retailer that does rituals right is American Girl, which makes tea at the store feel like a rite of passage. Also good at it are Disney and high-end spas. And for sports fans, there's the 7th inning stretch.

Otnes, who has been studying gift-giving and rituals for two decades, said the mistake retailers make is not talking with their customers and creating meaningless rituals like saying, "Have a great (insert name of store here) day" as a customer is leaving. A bigger mistake is forcing a customer to humiliate him- or herself by making the person get up and perform "a chicken dance or something like that." Then there's the restaurant chain that makes its waitstaff stop whatever it's doing when a certain song comes on to participate in a line dance.


"You might not get your food if they're dancing," Otnes said.

Otnes also mentioned the scene in the 2003 film "Love Actually." The character played by Alan Rickman tries frantically to no avail to interrupt a scripted gift-wrapping ritual in a department store so his wife won't catch him buying a gift for his girlfriend.

Otnes advises retailers not to institute rituals at all if they can't make them sincere, meaningful and tailored to customer needs.

"Companies get wrapped up in 'We must do this' rather than considering what the customer gets out of this," Otnes said.

Otnes said rituals should be geared toward customer milestones.

Citing the purchase of her home, Otnes recalled the banker at the closing brought her a box of candy as a housewarming gift; the Realtor, who made 3 percent of the price of the house, brought nothing.

"What's wrong with this picture? This is biggest purchase we will ever make. It's worthy of celebration. This was not even considered by the Realtor," she said.

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