One of the vastly underappreciated aspects of Covid-19 incarceration, perhaps as a product of not driving to work or to anywhere else, has been the ability to finally whack away at the pile of “must read” books sitting on the bed stand and scattered throughout the house. It’s a rare luxury and actually something that was totally impossible to do in any office in America. Sitting still at your desk and reading a book on any subject, business-related or not, while everyone else was rushing around or pecking furiously at their phones or PCs was tantamount to high treason. If you weren’t actually busy, you had to at least look busy.
The closest analogues today are the mindless idiots in the White House who were afraid to be seen wearing a mask by Trump or his virus enablers. Everyone was supposed to take one for the team, roll the dice on getting sick themselves, and spread the wealth as well to their own family and friends. And it’s still going on today.
Reading is apparently verboten in Trumpworld, where everything needs to be bite-sized, simplified and tweet ready. I’ve maintained for years that we need to do less tweeting and more reading, but who’s had the time to read? In fact, even today, I think we occasionally buy books as some kind of fanciful gesture; that the purchase itself will actually create the time we need to read them. Don’t hold your breath. Put them all in a big bag like Bill Gates does so you can drag a few of them with you– if you ever travel again.
But there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel. I’m hearing from friends that, in addition to the latest Jack Reacher and Stone Barrington beach novels and all the Trump tell-alls, they’re actually spending their spare seconds with some old favorites, trusty texts, and well-worn references that have served them well over many years and which, they believe, are worth revisiting. I’ve got a few dozen of those myself, but in looking backwards there’s also always a risk that time may have passed by these treatises and diminished their value. As we like to say today, the present is becoming the future faster than it’s becoming the past.
But some ideas, smart thinking, and careful analyses never get old – they just become more relevant, even as times change. That’s why the best of all possible worlds is when you find that the authors of an “oldy but goody” from 1999 have continued to update and reissue one of their classics. That’s how I came to be re-reading The Experience Economy: Competing for Customer Time, Attention and Money by my friend Joe Pine and his co-author James Gilmore. As far as I know, it remains perhaps the seminal work on the emergence of a whole new way of looking at and responding to the changing desires and expectations of retail consumers as well as other business customers and clients. It was among the earliest books to recognize the bifurcation between the chore and necessity of purchasing goods and the growing desire for and potential delight associated with accessing exciting and shared experiences.
Their main argument is that research has shown that having richer and more personalized in-store and in-venue “experiences” and other interpersonal interactions makes us happier and more fulfilled than simply buying increasingly commoditized stuff, especially online, where nothing matters but price. Today we totally take these ideas for granted, but they were new and important news when they were first presented more than 20 years ago.
The book also asked the crucial question of how you can set yourself and your offerings apart from the competition and preserve your margins when the whole world is confronting and consulting the great leveler – the internet – and joining the race to the bottom in terms of price. There’s updated material in the newest edition, published late last year, and they’ve also written some standalone articles specifically addressing the post Covid-19 world.
And that’s really the pressing question. What do we do now in a world where proximity, physical facilities, connection and personalization are all problematic and will be for the foreseeable future? Does this mean that the Experience Economy is no more or, more likely, that all of the businesses that were based on the old behaviors will need to be reimagined, redesigned and recreated in ways better suited to today’s realities? Retail will change rapidly and radically, but so will medicine, manufacturing and education as well.
One thing is for certain. Those business that don’t actively change – that think we’re eventually headed back to “business as usual” – will simply no longer exist. And many new and different businesses will need to be created, which present great opportunities for startups and clever entrepreneurs.
We’ll need some new language as well to cover all of these concerns and questions. I don’t want to share too much of their material – read the damn book – but just thinking about new “gathering technologies” for safely using common areas, “places-within-places with spread-out spaces,” “experience stagers and connection managers” and “queueless waiting” everywhere you used to stand in line are pretty exciting concepts.
Bottom line: Some things get better with age, experience, and ongoing education. Understanding the next iteration and implementation of the experience economy will be critical for all consumer-facing businesses. Pine and Gilmore’s book is a great place to start your new investigation. As Peter Allen sang: everything old is new again.