Seeking Super Fans

Discussion
Nov 04, 2010
Tom Ryan

By Tom Ryan

Only a few stores — Apple, Trader Joe’s, Bass Pro, Ikea, Nordstrom Rack and
Krispy Cream — have at least a few ‘super fans’. These are fanatics who will
drive hours to reach their favorite store. They’ll also follow rumor mills
regarding store openings and even sleep overnight in parking lots in hopes
of being among the first to experience a new store.

A profile of this customer type by the News & Observer in Raleigh,
NC compared their passion to the way sports fans are obsessed with their favorite
teams. One such fan interviewed in the article was Kirsten Gebhardt, a 39-year-old
mother who anticipated the opening of Container Store’s first North Carolina
store months before its opening.

“My breath was taken away,” she described of her first time visiting
a Container Store. “I was overwhelmed.”

The article also profiled a former 46-year old Californian, Heather Klausner,
who every few months would drive from her home state of Tennessee to Atlanta
to visit a Trader Joe’s. When the first Trader Joe’s store opened in Nashville,
she rented an RV for the weekend and dispersed samples of her favorite Trader
Joe’s items in the parking lot to others waiting overnight for the store to
open.

Analysts told the News & Observer that these loyal fans are much
more likely to buy product from a retailer vs. buying from competitors
on discount and are also very likely to offer recommendations.

Discussion Questions: What do you think makes ‘super fans’ of stores? Is it limited to a select group of retailers or can others capitalize on this fervor, especially around grand openings?

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14 Comments on "Seeking Super Fans"


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David Biernbaum
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

Apple, Trader Joe’s, Bass Pro, Ikea, Nordstrom Rack, each have “super fans” because what all of these stores have in common is that each are unique, defined, and yet surprising, and each offers the consumer an “experience.”

Paul R. Schottmiller
Guest
Paul R. Schottmiller
10 years 6 months ago

This seems more a psychological need finding an outlet than anything truly unique from the retailer driving the behavior. Don’t get me wrong – many of these retailers are great at what they do and do build a measure of passion and loyalty in their customer base. However, retailers should not assume these extreme behaviors can be developed broadly in their customer population.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
10 years 6 months ago

Customers become super fans when a brand offers them an overall experience which, for any number of reasons, achieves an emotional connection; one that is unavailable anywhere else. This goes beyond shopping. The key factor, in my view at least, is the “unavailable anywhere else” aspect.

In an era of mass production and incremental changes, this is hard to find, at least on a large scale. Apple is an obvious exemplar. There are lots of PC companies, but there is only one Apple, a company that takes big risks, makes bold moves, leapfrogs the competition, and places the individual experience foremost.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

Super fans need to get a life. Hey, folks…with the possible exception of Trader Joe’s…these are just stores.

Seriously, Paul is right. I did some consulting work for one of the stores mentioned in the article and when we opened a new store there were people camped out (once for three weeks) in front of the unit waiting for it to open. If the most important thing you have to do with your life is wait three weeks in a tent for a store to open so you can be “among” the first to enter, you probably need to see a professional.

Loyalty is good. Obsession is pathological.

Dan Berthiaume
Guest
Dan Berthiaume
10 years 6 months ago

Did anyone say “experience”? That’s the key to creating a superfan for any type of business. “Star Wars” films give fans the experience of a heroic universe full of fantastic creatures, which is why people dress in costume and wait in line for the new Star Wars film but not the new “Wall Street” sequel. Similarly, the Grateful Dead offered fans in the 80’s and 90’s a chance to relive the carefree 60’s, which is why people would follow the Dead around in a VW bus but not Bon Jovi.

David Livingston
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

I think the “dead head” type fans of any retailer make up a small base. Even FW Woolworth’s still has a few of them around years after the death of their stores. My mom is a Coca Cola logo collector. The biggest I’ve seen is the Harley Davidson fans. Big rallies attracting thousands of riders held at bike dealerships/retailers and parties that could last for days. Buffalo Wild Wings gets their share of customers camping out but they have a chance to win food for a year. Overall, the only retailer I’ve seen that can really convert customers and fans into being fanatics are the Harley Davidson motorcycle dealerships. They will blow away a Krispy Kreme grand opening any day.

Marge Laney
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

These brands have taken products that resonate with people and wrapped them in a unique in-store experience. Mr. Underhill is correct when he states that they “are not just selling goods”, they have created a stage on which their products are displayed and encourage their customers to engage personally with the brand. When well executed, this strategy results in a depth of connection that results in customer loyalty that borders on devotion.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

Super fans are fine and an asset to the brand they follow for many reasons; one being the free advertising they spread through word of mouth. But I have a problem understanding those who camp out overnight to get a donut or a chicken sandwich. What’s with that?
The Container Store, like Apple and Trader Joe’s, is a niche brand not found in many other retail models. Not that you need to camp out; but it is a good experience to visit them on grand openings. They aren’t going to run out of merchandise if you are not the first in line.

Ben Ball
Guest
10 years 6 months ago
I have to agree that waiting overnight for the first donut or chicken sandwich is a little tough to understand. But it seems those are more a function of personality (involved compulsive)and “new” (first one “here”) than driven by store characteristics. There are certain retailers on the other hand who create an experience that so exemplifies a lifestyle or passion that people simply flock to it. Two great examples that have gone unmentioned are Cabela’s and L.L.Bean. A Cabela’s opening — typically in a semi-rural, interstate exit location — is quickly followed by C-store, restaurant and hotel development. It becomes a destination. There’s a reason there are RV hook-ups in their parking lots. And how many retailers can say their customers would travel to Freeport, Maine just to visit the store. (And yes, there really are people in there shopping at 3:00 am. Don’t ask me how I know.) Regardless of the pursuit — gourmet food, wine, auto (Griot’s Garage), or outdoor sport — these retailers know how to embody a specific lifestyle as no… Read more »
Robert Straub
Guest
Robert Straub
10 years 6 months ago

You can’t have a conversation about super fans without mentioning In-N-Out Burger.

Mark Johnson
Guest
Mark Johnson
10 years 6 months ago

Loyalty, engagement, top-down corporate commitment, customer experience management driven by effective data segmentation, and superior CRM all leads to the “super fan.”

Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
10 years 6 months ago

Yes, there are levels of fanaticism, but let’s not get hung up on that. The point is that these customers feel a strong connection to these retailers, as do many others who express it in more subdued ways.

What drives this connection? Customer experience is becoming a too-easy cliche, but the truth’s in there somewhere. To me, it’s the synergy of genuinely engaging sales associates, a compelling product mix, a unique store, flawless execution and a culture which inspires a passion throughout the organization.

It can be a hard thing to define, but when we consider these retailers, we recognize they have it. For many other retailers, however, we recognize as soon as we walk through their doors that they don’t.

Mark Price
Guest
Mark Price
10 years 6 months ago

I have a concern that retailers are seeking an elusive target when they evaluate themselves based on “super fans.” The number of brands that truly achieve that level of fan-like obsession are few and far between. Evaluating your success based on those few cult-like customers can be like chasing the Holy Grail.

Instead, I believe that retailers truly build a sustainable, retention-based business when they have generated a substantial number of brand advocates. Brand advocates will not spend the night in the parking lot; they will not have your logo tattooed on their arm. But they will recommend you to their friends, frequent your store and web site and offer you advice on how to improve your customer service.

Those are the customers who drive your business — the ones to be measured, cultivated and nurtured. They may not make as good stories, but they do keep your business alive and growing.

Gene Detroyer
Guest
10 years 6 months ago

Two Sundays ago, a new TJ Maxx opened on the corner of 1st Ave and 59th Street in NYC. On the day it opened, there was a half block long line waiting. That line stayed, though diminished throughout the day.

I passed the store regularly during the following week and most of the time found it empty of customers.

Don’t build your business on super fans. There will never be enough of them.

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