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Dare To Be Different

Engage customers with a taste of the unconventional.

Buyers for major retailing chains show up for a meeting with Boaz Shonfeld expecting to be sold discount gourmet food items, such as gift baskets loaded with coffee, teas, fruits and spices. Instead, they're sold an experience.

The South Hackensack, New Jersey, founder of 30-person Shonfeld's USA Inc. doesn't start by showing prospects the products he has for sale. Instead, he presents a slide show detailing how he will work with the retailer to decide which product will sell the best, for the highest margin, to that particular store's shoppers.

It's far more involved than a simple take it or leave it, says Shonfeld, 31. The process of research, analysis, design and revision of product plans with a typical large retailer may take months. Why so long? Shonfeld doesn't just provide products; he helps his clients revamp their businesses by introducing new and aesthetically pleasing items, thus enhancing their shoppers' in-store experiences. This process can involve the consideration of details as fine as the colors most likely used to decorate customers' kitchens. Not infrequently, retailers learn a lot about their own businesses, Shonfeld says.

After all that, making the actual purchase is almost an afterthought for many buyers, a fact which Shonfeld credits as much to the power of the experience as to the appeal of his products. "We create an experience from A to Z," he says. The customer is constantly involved while we work together to create the best merchandise. From the very beginning, we make it very different."

The trick of turning business interactions into memorable experiences might reshape business as significantly as quality management or reengineering, say experts like Bernd Schmitt, a Columbia University business professor and author of Experiential Marketing (The Free Press). Small businesses can take a cue from companies such as Gillette, MasterCard and Coca-Cola, which have recently recognized the central importance of customer experience in marketing their products.

Spurring interest is a conviction that when firms go beyond merely selling products and services, and offer distinctive and positive experiences, it creates fanatically loyal customers. "When you engineer experiences," says Lewis Carbone, president and CEO of Minneapolis management systems firm Experience Engineering Inc., "customers say things like `I'm not sure exactly why, but this is the best experience I've had in your industry, and I sure hope it's like this next time.' "

Mark Henricks is an Austin, Texas, writer who specializes in business topics and has written for Entrepreneur for nine years.

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This article was originally published in the September 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Dare To Be Different.

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