What goes into delivering a ‘wow’ shopping experience?

Photo: Getty Images/Giselleflissak
Apr 20, 2021

Knowledge@Wharton staff

Presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article published with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

What defines a “wow” depends on the shopper and type of store, but hassle-free customer support is at the top of the list, finds a recent study from Wharton’s Baker Retailing Center and The Verde Group.

The survey of 9,400 consumers exploring what consistently “surprised and delighted” customers found that great service can be as heroic as a sales associate going above and beyond to help a customer find just the right item or as mundane as a clean, well-organized store.

“Whether you’re a specialty retailer or a big box or category killer or a mass merchandiser, whatever your value proposition is, the essence of that value proposition [and] delivering on it seemed to be the No. 1 thing that defined greatness and ‘wow’ for consumers,” Verde CEO Paula Courtney recently said on a Knowledge@Wharton podcast.

Some of the highest-ranked customer “wows” are:

  • Fast, free shipping
  • Easy returns
  • Problem-free shopping
  • Well-stocked inventory
  • A great app or website for online shopping
  • Attention to detail in packaging

Interestingly, the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t made shoppers any less demanding — or forgiving. If they encounter supply chain problems, staffing issues or other obstacles that create friction, they simply shop somewhere else.

“What we learned, which is surprising, is that consumers are not giving retailers a hall pass for the pandemic,” Ms. Courtney said.

Thomas Robertson, a marketing professor and director of the Baker Retailing Center, believes well-trained sales associates are a big part of a successful retail strategy.

Those jobs have been slashed in large numbers, however, and replaced by online chatbots or nothing at all. Customers are left frustrated and feeling the friction, he said.

“I think a major opportunity that is being missed that could help retailers deliver ‘wow’ experiences would be to value professional sales associates,” Mr. Robertson noted, adding that he isn’t sure whether those jobs will rebound after the pandemic.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Has online shopping largely replaced stores as the place consumers expect to be wowed as they shop? How have the parameters around what creates a “wow” experience at retail changed or remained the same in recent years?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Whether it is online or offline, retailers need to find ways to surprise customers and keep them excited about shopping at their store."
"The expectations just keep increasing as more factors that used to be considered wow factors are now table stakes."
"To a degree, we have spoiled consumers with the constant emphasis on more and more improvement in service."

Join the Discussion!

31 Comments on "What goes into delivering a ‘wow’ shopping experience?"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Neil Saunders

Many of the things listed as “wows” are, in actuality, basics that every retailer should be getting right. However, that customers are pleasantly surprised by them shows two things. First, that there are a lot of retailers that still fall short and so meeting expectations can generate wonder. Second, that adding fancy fripperies such as AI or immersive experiences is complementary to, and not a replacement for, the 101s of retail. Finally, I’d also add that human interaction from retail staff is a massive part of creating an experience and this should never be overlooked.

DeAnn Campbell

You’re so right, Neil. Technology is a tool to serve the business, not the other way around. Nothing beats a great interaction with a staff person who is well versed in the product and brand.

Oliver Guy

Stores are becoming multi-purpose – fulfillment, customer service and customer experience join the traditional approach as a shopping destination.
A wow experience spans the entire journey and it gets more difficult every day – as soon as a customer has had a better experience their expectations increase. Being flexible and innovative enough to respond is difficult. But focus on this is essential.

Shep Hyken

A consumer expects good service regardless of online or in-store. Wow is not about being over-the-top. Customers want a hassle-free experience where they are treated with respect. Customers will even pay more for that. When you combine a positive experience with convenience, you create “wow.”

David Naumann
David Naumann
Marketing Strategy Lead - Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon
18 days 19 hours ago

A “wow” experience depends on the expectations of customers and expectations continue to rise. Sometime the surprise and delight comes from an unexpected great deal and oftentimes it is a store associate that is extremely helpful or cheerful. Offering a convenient and frictionless shopping experience is now table stakes.

Chuck Ehredt

In the last couple years, CX (in-store and online) has been advancing rapidly, and time-starved customers are becoming less patient. It now seems that the best experience received anywhere is what customers expect from every brand they engage with.

Of course most brands are not positioned to deliver excellence on a consistent basis. And that is OK. It is much better to be consistently good rather than sometimes excellent and sometimes poor. In fact, it can be dangerous to deliver an outstanding customer experience (sometimes) because it may raise customer expectations – and then those customers will be disappointed when they receive a good experience.

So striving for “wow” should be on the minds of staff but delivered only in exceptional situations.

Bob Phibbs

A wow experience begins with a moment as I wrote in How To Engage Retail Customers Begins With A Wow Moment. “Free shipping” is not a wow moment. It is a feature. You could have said credit cards — those too are not a “wow.” Mr. Robertson has it right and while the pendulum has swung to the digital natives, stores will come roaring back. Retailers like Lululemon and others whose ethos is crafting engaged employees – they’re the ones who can deliver a “wow.” The rest is just table stakes.

Dr. Stephen Needel

I’m wondering if the premise is relevant – I’m not sure who it is that is looking for a wow experience at retail, but they must be disappointed a great deal of the time. These “wows” are all pretty blah – and as Tony Orlando has said lots of times, they are not “wows” but should be basic to your operation.

Richard Hernandez

I do not think the parameters have changed – we still expect an outstanding shopping experience whether we do it in a brick-and-mortar store or online. Consistency is what is expected – am I going to experience this every time I visit? If not, there are a lot more choices (online at least) that will provide that experience. For me, I would add the treasure hunt experience as an attribute of an exceptional experience – getting something that I found that was not expected but was a welcome surprise.

Natalie Walkley

The most important parameter for wowing customers is to truly understand them, whether online or in-store.

Steve Dennis

Clearly online shopping has not replaced stores, as stores are involved with 90 percent of all retail transactions. As I go into in my book Remarkable Retail, the “table stakes” have been raised over the years as scarcity has given way to an abundance of choice, access, information and so on. The key is to deeply understand what customers value, be sure to meet the basic requirements, and then “amplify the wow” to create something truly memorable (Essential #7 in my framework). This is highly dependent on individual customer preferences, the specific purchase occasion and the context in which we compete for their attention, engagement and willing to share the remarkable story of our brand. One day a customer may find “wow” in cashierless check-out at an Amazon Go location, finding a huge bargain at TJX or getting inspiration at an RH Gallery. We must deeply understand customer journey and being remarkable in the moments that matter for that customer, for that purchase, wherever they happen to be (digitally and physically).

Kevin Graff

Isn’t it always amazing to see that so much of the “wow” is tied to just finding a helpful, skilled and knowledgeable staff member? For as much as things change, things stay the same. And even in those sectors where it’s more of a self-serve model, it relies on the staff to execute all of the merchandising. If you’re looking to reduce friction of all types, it would seem to make sense to invest in your most important asset — your staff.

Bob Amster

The parameters around what creates a wow experience are the same as they were 100 years ago. My wife worked for Bloomingdale’s years ago and used to say you could return a dead dog (pardon the comparison) and Bloomingdale’s would accept it and credit your account. I return very little so returns are not my primary criterion for “wow.” On the other hand, getting a live person to answer a phone or live chat support and actually being helped “wows” me. Attractive packaging, inventory availability, and value — they “wow” me. The question for retailers is: Am I the typical customer in your base?

Georganne Bender

I don’t agree that online shopping has largely replaced stores as the place consumers expect to be wowed. Online shoppers want selection, good prices, free shipping and quick delivery. If a retailer can’t provide that then they have a gazillion other options online to shop somewhere else. The wow factor lives on brick-and-mortar sales floors.

Thomas Robertson is right about the need for retailers to value professional sales associates – and really, is that quote news? I know it’s hard to find good frontline employees right now, but too many retailers send new hires on the sales floor with little or no training to fend for themselves; on-going training with seasoned associates is almost non-existent.

No matter what retailers implement to grow sales – BOPIS, curbside, social media shopping and personal shoppers – success will always boil down to the relationship between the store associate and the consumer. It continues to amaze me that the answers are right in front of us but we still cannot manage to get it right.

Cathy Hotka

Neil’s right — these are the basics now. Customers should be itching to get back into stores, use fitting rooms again, and purchase something to replace those sweatshirts they’ve been wearing on Zoom calls. Bring it on!

Christopher P. Ramey

Confusing the cost of entry with “wow” is an often repeated mistake. At its simplest level, “wow” is the absence of friction. The differentiator is constant innovation beyond the scrape.

Ricardo Belmar

The listed “wows” are just table stakes for most consumers. That’s what they expect from any retailer while online or in-store. That said, online has not replaced in-store as the place where customers expect a “wow” moment. Online is where consumers go to buy something when they know what it is and want to find a decent price with fast shipping. Stores are still where consumers shop and hunt for the right product when they need something more to help them decide. This is where a well-trained sales associate makes all the difference in the world. When we list retailers that we all agree are doing a great job in-store, it’s always names like Nike, Lululemon, and even Apple. What do they all have in common? Great sales associates that are not only helpful to customers but know how to make a sale. Shopping is about engagement with people, and retailers need to remember that as a fundamental part of their brand and product offering.

Venky Ramesh

In day-to-day life, we say wow when something far exceeds our expectations — at a pleasant surprise. Likewise, if a retailer consistently provides a great customer experience, free shipping, easy returns, etc., customers will get used to it and still not feel wowed. Whether it is online or offline, retailers need to find ways to surprise customers and keep them excited about shopping at their store. Costco is a great example of a retailer that manages to drive that surprise by introducing new and interesting items with great regularity.

Gene Detroyer

I agree, “we say wow when something far exceeds our expectations — at a pleasant surprise.” If “a retailer consistently provides a great customer experience, free shipping, easy returns, etc.,” they get to keep the customer coming back. It is the minimum experience. Not a “wow” experience.

Matthew Brogie
17 days 15 hours ago

I have to second your comments, with a strong affirmation towards the notion of expectations. The exact same experience could be a “Wow” or a disappointment, depending on the expectation that has been set, either through prior experience or some actions by the retailer (or product brand). I’ll go further to say that a consumer’s needs and expectations change over the lifecycle of their relationship with the product, leaning more towards rich context and content when exploring, and more towards streamlined and minimalist when they are replenishing a known product.

Setting the proper expectation, and executing against it has to be aligned with the lifecycle stage of that relationship.

Kathleen Fischer

It’s not online shopping replacing stores, it’s online in addition to stores. Customers expect to be wowed any and everywhere they shop. The expectations just keep increasing as more factors that used to be considered wow factors are now table stakes.

Gene Detroyer

I buy into everything listed in the discussion. To me, those are the requirements to get my business. They don’t measure up to “wow,” they are the minimum.

To go one step further, please, when I am online, don’t “wow” me — don’t distract me. Make it simple, convenient, fast, and easy.

You can “wow” me in brick-and-mortar, as I already determined I am not in that time saving, make-it-easy convenience mode. Wow me with color (Anthropologie), wow me with stimulation (Samsung Experience), wow me with technology (Tesla store).

Rich Kizer

To a degree, we have spoiled consumers with the constant emphasis on more and more improvement in service. I think that is a good thing, and a strategy that leads to more success. However along with that comes the further consumer expectation of perfection. What thrills them today will be a sure expectation tomorrow. And the beat goes on.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

The key to wowing customers or, in my terms, “delighting” them has two essential components: system and people. The system entails all those items that are essential for a potential wow experience – clean store, in-stock merchandise, easy and fast checkout, easy returns, etc. Often times when these things are not delivered the assumption is that it is a people or staff problem. However in each of the examples noted above, the system the retailer has in place failed to deliver as promised. On the other hand, do not minimize the role of people in the process. But the people can not always overcome a bad or lacking system. I use the analogy of a Broadway musical. Unless the stage is properly set and decorated — lighting and music in sync, costumes ready, etc. — the performance will be disappointing. Imagine the performers in Cats, acting sans costumes. It wouldn’t be a wow performance. The same goes for retail.

Trevor Sumner

The top wows right now are simply about execution. As the playing field for inventory, delivery and returns levels, the “wow” will come back to the actual act of shopping again – not the logistics surrounding it. Interestingly, Brian Solis just posted an interview with McKinsey talking about how real-time delivery will change the shopping journey itself to consist more of showrooming and item selection that gets fulfilled in real-time in the back. If fulfillment is 15-30 minutes, the products you selected in-store might just beat you back home.