Saturday, February 10, 2018

Rational Consumer

One of my main hobbies is what's called overlanding. It's a kind of off road, road trip through the most remote areas of wilderness with camping along the way. It's really just a fancy word for car camping used in places like Australia and Africa. My motivation for overlanding is so I can spend more quality time with my son in amazing places. I say that's my motivation, but what I really do is spend my weekends with friends, building my Jeep for these trips. Other overlanders I know spend their weekends at work to pay for their overlanding gear.

Few of us act in a way consistent with our stated motivations, spending time with loved ones or getting out into nature (In truth, I don't even like camping). In fact, some people spend all their time in this hobby building their vehicle, and never actually go anywhere. You can bargain shop for semi complete vehicles as people realize their stated motivations were never going to match their actions. We all have stated motivations for what we do and we all lie to ourselves to varying degrees, when in fact the answer to what to do this weekend if we were consistent, is to just go on a drive with those you love with what you have.

As a store owner, I see this conflicted motivation every day. I have to assume not only do my customers have mixed stated reasons for what they buy, but they have underlying motivations they don't really understand themselves, or like me, stated motivations that don't line up with their actions. Games Workshop published a pie chart a few years ago where they compiled what their customers really do with their models. A good percentage obviously play the games, but shockingly large percentages either just collect or just buy models to paint. Roughly half their customer base never plays at all, yet if you asked me how many customers fit into that category, I might tell you it's a percent or two. What I'm told and what actually happens is very different.

Yesterday I had a customer come in who wanted to get back into gaming after having a heart attack. This was a person who was crystal clear on his motivation. This game brought him joy. The expense of the hobby had held him back for years, was a source of conflict in his relationships, and was a reason for leaving, but now he knew it was where he would find his bliss. Getting him back into this hobby was a solemn affair, at least for me. It was as if his life depended on it, which perhaps it did. I didn't really feel up to the job but I listened and paid attention. Rarely do I have my role so clearly spelled out: I sell happiness. Sure, it's just boxes of plastic, but the potential for joy, of collecting, of painting, of playing a game with friends and connecting with others, all starts right here with me and my store.

Hardcore online shoppers think game store owners like me guilt people into shopping with them. I've been marketing my store for fourteen years and I can tell you guilt is not a selling point. It does not tap into anyone's motivation for why they play their games or shop with me. Guilt doesn't work. Yet, there are a large percentage of my customers (at one point I figured it was 20%), who support us because of the intangibles we provide. I know this because I started asking. That support may appear to come from guilt, but it's primarily a belief in supporting a local community (play space being a requirement to get this support). I think for an online buyer, these two concepts, guilt and community support, are likely indistinguishable. They see my Unique Value Proposition as psychological warfare.

After fourteen years selling things to people, I honestly don't know why people buy, and anyone who claims to know is a fool or a genius. There's a great book on this called Why We Buy by Paco Underhill. The book claims to explore the "science" of shopping, but it's really just an observational study on the insanity of the American consumer. We know which direction they turn when the enter a store, and how they need a transition between the outside and inside, and how when they brush against another person it creates a flight response. It's a book derived from countless hours of watching CCTV cameras. Designing a store like mine is really about maintaining circulation patterns and not putting impediments in place of the human animal in its primitive gathering rituals. I can't really claim to know why people actually shop. Paco doesn't know either. The online shopper who thinks they understand what I do and why my customers foolishly shop with me, knows least of all.

I'm thankful for my customers. Thankfulness is a wise position to take when you understand you only have a vague understanding of the way the universe functions. There are times I wish everyone who wasn't a rational actor, everyone who didn't shop with me because of my Unique Value Proposition, would just go away. That's right, if you're not clear on what I'm offering you, please take one big step back. But the truth is I have no idea if there would be anyone left in front of me. I can't even tell a model collector from an actual gamer, so what makes me think I know why people shop with me? So I'll keep my mouth shut and remain thankful. Thank you everyone.

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