Among today’s consumerist trends sparks the rapid rise of consumption for experiences. Long gone are the days when shopping is centered around brick-and-mortar retail. Nowadays, customers focus on the shopping experience, and in some ways, shopping for experiences. With all the late jostle revolving around the magical power of experiential purchases and claims that they make people happier, I question whether they ring true.
First, let’s delve into the differences between the two concepts. A purchase is considered experiential when consumers expect to obtain an experience out of it. Examples would be traveling or attending a concert. On the other hand, a material purchase is one that offers a buyer ownership of an object, as simple as buying a new shirt or a new pair of shoes. The distinctions, however, are not always clear. A book or a TV, for example, are objects that offer grand experiences. The same goes for paintings, speakers… you get the idea.
In terms of what these two types of purchases have to offer, how do they compare? One offers experiences, the other possessions. Suppose Y, a middle-income worker, finds a £100 note on the street. Will Y get more out of spending the money on a new bag, or dining out with her family? The former would likely last longer, as dining out or not, Y’s family would still need to eat the next day. But when presented with options like these, is it wise to look only at the lifespan of a purchase? One could argue that, although the dinner takes place during one night, the memory would stay on. The bag, on the other hand, only deteriorates with the passage of time.
Some psychologists, most notably Thomas Gilovich and Matthew Killingsworth, would point out that regardless of how long experiences last, they bring people more happiness than possessions. For one, experiential purchases trump material ones because they are better at building anticipation of the consumption in advance. People frequently say that they are excited for their trip next month, as opposed to their feelings when waiting for a new phone to arrive. Rather, the latter leaves one anxious, even impatient.
Other benefits that experiential purchases have over material purchases include the ability to share. Y is more likely to share the experience of going to see a movie with a friend, rather than to share a new watch with them. In the same manner, for post-purchase experience, Y’s friends would be more than happy to hear about her experience seeing the movie. Would they be as excited to hear about how wearing the new watch has turned out for her? Not so much.
While the list goes on, I would like to focus on the two key benefits derived from experiential purchases, with the first one being gratitude. Upon reflection, Y is more likely to feel grateful for having spent a summer vacation with her friends, rather than having owned a laptop. This is not to say that her laptop did not bring her as much utility or satisfaction, only that it is less likely to trigger appreciation. Equally important, unlike possessions, experiences rarely prompt one to make social comparisons. Seeing her friends pre-order the new iPhone might pressure Y into getting one herself. Her friends, however, would not find themselves booking a vacation like Y just had only so they don’t feel left out. On this note, it’s also important to point out that with material possessions, one can easily get sucked into the vacuum of addictive shopping. With fast fashion stores introducing new collections as often as weekly, our purchases easily seem out of trend after a few uses.
With that said, in a scenario where one is presented with two different types of purchases, is it always better to invest in the experiential one? Or at least, will buying an experience make one happier?
Just like material purchases, experiential ones are not flawless. Threads of bad restaurant reviews on Tripadvisor, for example, speaks volumes to how experiential purchases can go awry. Customers express bitterness after having spent a fortune on a fine dining experience, only to be served with mediocre food and rude customer service after having waited in a long queue. The same applies for booking a trip to Santorini in the summer. Travel agencies advertise photos with colorful sunsets and breathtaking blue domes. The reality sets in when one comes to the island and witnesses crowds of tourists crushing each other for the best selfies under the hot sun. As intuitive as it is, it’s not about the type of purchase, but the quality that it brings that determines whether a consumer will appreciate it.
Don’t just take their word for it
Playing into the desires of consumers, many brands now market their products as experiential purchases. For example, one of the catchphrases of lingerie brand Intimissimi is “living the Italian lifestyle”. At the end of the day, consumers aren’t buying the Italian lifestyle, they are buying Italian lingerie at best.
Having pointed out the pros and cons of each type of purchase, where does that leave us? The importance of the process of consideration whenever we have a big purchase decision to make. Brands and their marketing forces know how to appeal to consumers. Trendy advertising words such as “experience”, “luxurious” and “elegant” easily catch eyes, but might not add any value to the products. When evaluating a big purchase, it is necessary to do some background research, compare pros and cons, and weigh out options. The same thing applies for price tags. Just because something is expensive does not mean that it is better. To go back to fine dining experiences: why spend a fortune on a bad night out if one can easily order food in, watch a movie and save a lot of money in the process? Experiential purchases can bring happiness, but not if they are chosen poorly.
The Last Word
A few weeks ago, Harper’s BAZAAR released a video titled “These are the Real ‘Crazy Rich Asians’”. It features wealthy girls justifying obsession with exorbitant designer clothing. One girl said that buying haute couture is like buying wearable art. The question is, would the girls still be wearing those pieces of art if they didn’t have such a costly price tag, or come from such well-known designers?
The satisfaction derived from wearing expensive art is very different from the satisfaction derived from a day spent engaging with art in a museum. Obviously, the intrinsic worth of a purchase can only be determined by its owner, but this goes a long way into saying that in order to get the maximum satisfaction out of a purchase, we have to do it for our own sake. If Y has a sunset cruise booked, the way that she can get the best out of her purchase is to enjoy the moment with her loved ones, instead of photographing herself holding a glass of wine for Instagram purposes.