Bergdorf and the Subconscious


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What Bergdorf Clerks Can Teach Us about Our Subconscious

Subconsciously, we are judging our customers. But before you feel bad about it, remember that they are subconsciously judging you, too. The truth is all of us judge each other by the cues that we provide in order to project a message. We all judge a book by its cover, despite the fact that conventional wisdom says we shouldn’t.

When Randi Newton, reporter for the New York Observer went into Bergdorf Goodman the first time, she knew that she was playing a part. Before she went into the luxury retailer, she had gone to the gym so was dressed in her workout clothes. She was also wearing a stocking cap, packable down jacket, large frame sunglasses and carrying a venti Starbucks and a Trader Joes Reusable bag.

Slumming it? Not exactly. Newton was testing a study published by a Harvard Business School study that said, “Nonconforming behaviour signalled a higher social status.” She wanted to see if she entered Bergdorf’s dressed as she was how she would be treated in the store. Not surprisingly, Harvard was right. One of the clerks asked if she was an actress and compared her to a young Nicolette Sheridan. But on an interesting note, she didn’t get excellent service.

When Newton returned dressed much more in line with the typical Bergdorf customer’s profile, she was largely ignored. That time she had big hair, a Missoni wrap, Louis Vuitton bag and a toy poodle, meaning the breed not an actual toy. But no one asked if she was an actress or treated her like a celebrity. And despite several hints that she wanted to see the expensive frames at the sunglass counter, the clerk continued to direct her to the more economical frames. Overall, she describes the service as only so-so.

The Power of the Subconscious

I found a couple of thing interesting here. First of all, Newton didn’t get great service on either visit, which may be something that Bergdorf management should address. Secondly, I found most interesting in this piece is that when she had the more dishevelled look, the sales person said she looked like an actress.  I find this interesting because he made that judgement based on his subconscious.

The subconscious is a fascinating subject to me. When I do my training on subconscious clues, I often run over the allotted time because it’s a topic that has so many interesting aspects to it. The mind is a highly selective and can process multitudes of data in a second and we are scarcely aware of it when it is happening.

Newton’s sent a subconscious signal with her venti Starbucks and a general lack of respect for dress code to the clerk that she was perhaps a celebrity. Furthermore, she also suggested in the conversation that she had just had a “procedure” that she was unwilling to reveal, which is another classic subconscious signal that she may have been in show business. Using these cues as his guide, he was compelled to ask her if she was an actress.

Another Theory about Bergdorf’s Strategy

Harvard’s theory is not the only one that could have been at work during Newton’s experiment. Another study from the Sauder School of Business and Southern Methodist University indicates that nothing spikes sales like the signal that you don’t deserve to be here.

In an article published on the Wall Street Journal’s blog, professor Darren Dahl from the Sauder School of Business said, “When a retailer signals, ‘No, you don’t deserve to be here,’ it makes us want to be a member.” The research from the study called, “Should the Devil Sell Prada?  Retail Rejection Increases Aspiring Consumers’ Desire for the Brand”, researchers determined that as it pertains to high end brands, a snub from the sales clerk motivates people to plunk down their credit cards anyway.

The researchers said that while this strategy works in the short term for high-end brands, it would not work for mass-retailers. Treated this way at retailers like the Gap will not yield the same results, as customers are more likely to walk without purchasing anything. They also concluded that the high-end brands will likely get the sale that day, but the snub will leave a poor impression on the shopper who is unlikely to go back.

It could have been that the second clerk at the sunglasses where Newton was shopping dressed more appropriately for the store’s typical clientele, was simply trying this Snub strategy to motivate Newton into buying the expensive frames that he seemed unwilling to show her. By subconsciously sending the signal that she couldn’t afford them, he may have been trying to get her to prove that she could.

Nothing Beats Good Customer Experience

Both theories tell us a lot about how important the subconscious is for your customer experience. From how your employees interpret the background of the customer to how their behaviour is interpreted by the customer both at the moment and later on, the subconscious is a critical factor in how your organization will fare in the long term.

Your customer experience is creating a subconscious reaction for your customers. Whether you intend to or not, you send signals to your customer all the time that create an emotional response that they then associate with your organization. Most organizations don’t know this or consider this in their customer experience design and as a result, they don’t control this important association.

Controlling these associations is critical to your business strategy long-term. Designing a customer experience that evokes the emotions you intended will help you create the loyalty and retention you are hoping for with your brand. Just like the second study from the Sauder School of Business said, there is nothing that will help your bottom line more than a good customer experience.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Colin Shaw
Colin is an original pioneer of Customer Experience. LinkedIn has recognized Colin as one of the ‘World's Top 150 Business Influencers’ Colin is an official LinkedIn "Top Voice", with over 280,000 followers & 80,000 subscribed to his newsletter 'Why Customers Buy'. Colin's consulting company Beyond Philosophy, was recognized by the Financial Times as ‘one of the leading consultancies’. Colin is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast, which is rated in the top 2% of podcasts.


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