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15 Oct

Shut up! It's not a product, it's an experience.

Imagine a world where we only bought only what we needed.

The COVID-19 pandemic briefly made us witness what that world would be like, but the duration was short. However, with pandemic-induced restrictions being gradually revoked the world over, we are now back to a world where we often buy more than what we need.But this is not an essay about which of the two worlds is better. Shopping, a fundamental activity of the modern times, is influenced by so much more than what products are being sold.

We speak of shopping as an exciting activity; as an experience that serves the purpose of alleviating stress, even if momentarily.

But was shopping always considered an exhilarating experience?

Decoding the Gruen effect could help us figure out what exactly changed over time.

The Gruen effect or Gruen transfer is the moment when consumers enter a shopping mall or store and, surrounded by an intentionally confusing layout, lose track of their original intentions, making them more susceptible to making impulse buys.

It is named after a Viennese architect Victor Gruen, who spent his early years wandering the cafes and public squares of Vienna. His vision for the first shopping enclave he designed was to recreate the social atmosphere of public spaces. But this vision soon got lost because malls and storefront construction optimized for a very different behaviour: impulse buying!

One of the prime examples of a business that successfully uses the Gruen transfer to influence how consumers shop is Ikea.

Any Ikea store you visit uses arrows on the floor to guide you towards experiencing the store in a way that’s pre-determined by Ikea, not you.

I say "experience" because you’re likely to walk through multiple ways in which a living room or a bathroom is reimagined. All the products manufactured by Ikea are smartly placed as a part of these room mock-ups.

Gruen noticed that if you overwhelm consumers with sensations when they enter a store, their mindset changes. Instead of going straight to the section where the product they wish to buy is shelved, customers forget why they came in and instead consider the store as an experience to enjoy.

The various room mock-ups help them build aspiration for a lot more products than they initially planned on buying. And as a consumer, you’re likely to be so impressed by the aestheticism, you feel convinced enough to buy an extra stool or a stray kitchen organizer.

In fact, the restaurant at Ikea is also a store design choice aimed to create cheer and delight for customers. Because a happy customer buys more. I, personally, have fallen prey to this trap when I went to the newly opened store in Bengaluru.

As a consumer, you might feel a bit cheated here after learning about this effect but is that the intention? Not entirely.

This tweet by Harish, Head of Design at CRED, offers some useful insight.

The purpose of shopping may not always be utilitarian.

Often, most of us are just exploring. Sometimes the exploration leads to serendipity and we chance upon the perfect product or tool that we were not explicitly looking for but would be delighted to buy anyway.

The CRED app reflects an online version of the Gruen transfer. Even though a customer uses CRED to make bill payments in exchange for rewards, the app design makes an experience out of this simple activity. Now CRED, like any other banking app or payment app, could’ve used a simple layout to facilitate credit card payments but they didn’t. Harish, in a podcast, succinctly explains why that is so:

"I came across this during my stint with Macromedia, a firm that created flash and eventually got acquired by Adobe. That frame of thought has stayed with me for 16 years now.

So, I built the CRED app like a movie trailer. I didn’t build it like an app.

My approach is similar to how cinema is created. When you watch a movie you don’t always know what to expect. I like the intrigue that movies have. If you orchestrate the experience well people enjoy using it.

Lots of people told me the onboarding process of CRED won’t be successful because there is too much animation. But I was looking at the whole experience as stitching scenes together. The UI of Cred is also related to crafting scenes.

Eventually, we call it the CRED Club, right?

A club usually has a lobby, a bar, and a billiards area. Basically, you’re navigating scenes. And the second thing is you don’t navigate familiar places. You don’t navigate home, you go home right? Navigation is for unknown places.

Unfortunately, in digital products, people spend way too long designing navigation. But navigation is needed only once. Once you go there you know how to do it the next time as well.

So, my idea for the app was to create a scene as if you were walking in a mall. And the first time you go to a mall you go for the joy of discovery. It is similar to the difference between people who use the elevator at a mall as opposed to those who use the escalator. Those who use the elevator are very target oriented. They will go to the loo on the third floor and go back to the parking area. The ones who use the escalator are the ones who will give you business.

So, my product is not meant for you to go to a page and do something. I don’t build for that. I’ve built it in a way for people to explore the product. So when people ask me why not have a search bar, using which I can check my rewards easily, my response is I don’t want you to. I don’t want you to search, I want you to come, and discover.

Who knows what you might find?"

Even though Victor Gruen in 1978 disavowed shopping mall developments as having "bastardized" his ideas, his vision brought about a revolution in how we experience the world at large, and shopping, if I have to be specific.

Creating scope for serendipity and making that serendipity profitable is how his vision of recreating a space where the social atmosphere of public spaces was finally realised.

As always, you need capitalism and the ability to create a profit to make good things sustainable and help good ideas survive.

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