A headline from a weekly business newsletter crossed my inbox recently and caught my attention. It read: “Price matters more than experience in 2020.” For so long, we have been talking about customer experience as a way for businesses to distinguish themselves in highly competitive marketplaces. So, this headline led me to question  in the era of cheaper, faster, easier, is customer experience still the differentiator it once was?

The pandemic has caused a seismic shift in how consumers are spending their money. Whether due to real (furloughed or laid off) or perceived (fear of job loss or economic downturn) circumstances, spending power has taken a hit. Consumers are also changing where they shop and what they are shopping for. In the absence of being able to get out as freely as one did pre-pandemic and visit a local business, consumers are choosing to get their retail therapy fix via the internet. Additionally, experiences are harder to come by and as a result consumer goods are increasingly replacing them in the budget.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Leavenworth, Washington. If you have not been there before it is quite spectacular  and boasts its own remarkable story of reinvention in a crisis. What was once a thriving logging community, the town found itself in a steep decline by the 1960s. Local leaders came together in 1962 and decided to take advantage of its remarkable geographic positioning, nestled in the mountains, and remake it into a Bavarian-style village. They completely remodeled the town, and it was reborn as a thriving tourist destination boasting over 3 million visitors per year.

The pandemic has deeply impacted Leavenworth’s economy. Their local newspaper recently reported that tourism-related tax revenue was down by 40%. Yet, much like what visitors to our region experience, small businesses throughout town were open and serving customers  demonstrating extraordinary tenacity and capacity for keeping the economy churning.

A highlight of our visit was dining at the restaurant Mana which boasts a farm-to-table menu that is 90% locally sourced. Upon arrival we were greeted with warmth and high standards for following COVID protocols were evident. Once you were at your table you felt safe to truly relax and savor each delectable moment. We enjoyed a glorious pre-set five course menu and perfectly paired wines and were expertly led through the culinary experience by the chef and his attentive team. When the bill was delivered at the end of the meal, we found ourselves talking about the $150 per person tab as “well worth the investment” for the 2.5-hour experience, which actually began far before we arrived at the restaurant.

My path to discovering Mana started with a friend I follow on Instagram whom I consider to be a taste maker. I happened to catch that she was in Leavenworth while I was planning our trip and I took note of the places that she posted and recommended, including Mana. Upon further investigation, social media was full of vibrant pictures of people enjoying delicious food, the online reviews were stellar and I was able to easily navigate to where I could book a table online. When they called 48 hours prior to our reservation to confirm, they told me how excited they were to have us join them. From the moment my friend posted a picture of her food on Instagram to paying the bill and all the steps in between, I was deeply immersed in a positive purchasing experience.

Evaluating the buyer’s purchasing process, from the point of view of the restaurant owner, is called customer journey mapping. Each encounter a potential customer has with their business represents an opportunity where they could deliver exceptional value  and value trumps price time and time again. In our case with Mana, we knew we paid a much higher price than some of the dining alternatives available (or other ways we could spend our money) but our remarkable experience was a bigger focus than our final tab.

Price erosion and declining profits are a very real and present danger in this economy for small businesses. As we approach the critical holiday shopping season it will be critical to put in the work to deeply understand your customer and create valuable and rich purchasing experiences for them. So, get out a piece of paper and start mapping their journey today! The more you can design delight for them at each encounter along the way, the greater chance you have to stem the tide towards cheaper, faster, easier.

Jessica Newhall is the associate director and Small Business Management program manager for the Clatsop Community College Small Business Development Center. She can be reached at jnewhall@clatsopcc.edu.

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