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Love and Betrayal in Canadian Retail
(And the Ten Little Things That Can Make All the Difference)

by Alastair Hay

(Do Ads Really Persuade?)

by Alastair Hay

Love and Betrayal in Canadian Retail
(And the Ten Little Things That Can Make All the Difference)

Why do service experiences get high ratings even when the service provided doesn't affect the quality of customers' decisions? According to a recent retail study by Hay Research, it's the ‘soft' emotional elements that are critical.

Al Hay, CMRP

Imagine you are waiting for the steeped tea at Tim Hortons and the service person, noticing that you are getting fidgety, smiles and offers you free baked goods to keep you happy. Or suppose that the car battery you bought at Canadian Tire turns out to be so badly damaged that it ruins your car's starter motor, and Canadian Tire replaces both the battery and starter motor free of charge, with their sincere apologies. Or you discover that the nice lady who assisted you in the hardware store had already finished her shift 45 minutes before and was just happy to help out. Or how about this one: A pharmacist wants to make sure you are taking your new medication in the right way, so he makes a special trip to your home after work to deliver your prescription personally.

These are some of the high points in our study of people's best (and worst) service experiences in Canadian retail. They're nice stories but, frankly, a little under - whelming – certainly not the highly dramatic and unusual stories we hoped for. (The exception, perhaps, was the pharmacist, who deserves an award!) When we asked almost 2,000 people online about their best and worst service experiences, we were expecting to get some pretty juicy stories – stories worthy of a CSI, perhaps, or Grey's Anatomy, or a Survivor ("How I Survived Walmart"). What we got, instead, was more of what you read above – nice little anecdotes, perhaps, but hardly groundbreaking.

What was going on? We were about to shelve the whole project when someone came up with an interesting thought: Maybe we have everything reversed. Maybe we are looking for those big, dramatic events because we need something big to match the size of our emotions. You know – how a little encounter can leave you thrilled or fuming. But it's actually the other way round. Maybe the events themselves are rather ordinary in comparison to our emotions. We build the events up in our minds so they appear to warrant the heated emotions we experience.

We thought this was a very interesting idea. So we decided to continue. Our point of view had, of course, changed: it was no longer about the shocking service events that leave us delighted or fuming, but about the minor, almost forgettable little incidents that do basically the same thing. After all, when you think about it, it's a wonder we care about those little service encounters at all. What's the big deal about ordering a hamburger, or buying some wood screws or lawn chairs? But, truth be told, in the course of the few seconds or minutes that a service encounter lasts, that anonymous service person is transformed into that "nice young man who was so friendly" or that "snotty young girl who should know better; I'm going to report her." So we decided to continue with our project and ask why.

We proceeded by conducting an online study in which we asked respondents to report on those extreme service experiences which made them feel particularly good and believe that their business was especially important – or those which made them feel particularly bad and believe that their business was unimportant. By dialing up the emotional content in this way, the emotional aspects, we thought, would become more evident. And they certainly were. So this article is about the ten little things we found that can really make a big difference.

The Invisible Customer

What I'm about to show you is part of a much larger study of 4,000 Ontario switchers we examined across eight categories of retail through online research. (Switchers were defined as individuals who had switched their most often visited retailer in one or more of eight retail categories in the previous three months.) In all, people told us about 1,200 great experiences and 800 awful ones.

Since the coding of these responses tends to remove the emotional content, we offer a short verbal "collage" of what they said, first of all, about their truly awful experiences:

I was left waiting for fifteen minutes at Walmart, twisting in the wind. … As an (elderly) woman I was ignored while the sales clerk tended to a young couple. ... They were cold: no smiles, no thank you, no "Have a good day." … The employee stood and watched me struggle to get out of my wheelchair to reach for something at the top shelf. … I'm a waitress and, at McDonald's even, I can't get waited on. … Employees were busy chatting about Friday night; they ignored me; I felt insignificant and unimportant. … They acted as though I wasn't there … were like robots, no expression or feeling, no conversation … no pleasantries, no thank you. … They treated me like a kid. … The cashier looked at all the food in my cart and said, "I don't get paid enough for this." (There's lots more.)

Coded, the actual responses looked like what is presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Worst Experiences

One of the Worst Service
Experiences I've Had / They Made
Me Feel I Was Unimportant to Them

Note how the coded descriptions seem so humdrum and familiar. The actual reading of these 800 or so awful experiences, however, gives you a very different flavour. You can see to what extent people's emotions were being aroused when a service person ignored them, walked away from them, talked over their head, made them feel invisible or like an imposition, or just made them wait. As we reviewed all these comments, something else began to really stick out: people were reading body language into all this in a big way.

Sighs, shoulder shrugs and stiff-backed walk … no smiles … looked pissed-off … did not acknowledge me … would not look at me … spoke slowly and rolled her eyes … I'm an imposition … never even looked at me … left me hanging … nonchalant, couldn't be bothered … blew me off … no expression. (Again, there's lots more.)

It seemed as though there was a dimension of reaction that was being hinted at but not treated seriously (and probably under-reported) by the respondents themselves – that is, body language and the search for signals of recognition and respect. We had to conclude that not being acknowledged as a person had an immediate psychological effect. A sense of personal importance – or its loss – was being triggered. So looking at these highly negative cases gives us insight into what "not having one's business valued" actually means. The root of it seemed to be the lack of acknowledgement of the person as a person.

But perhaps not all felt this way and this type of response was confined to a small group. As Figure 2 shows, females and younger folks (those under 35) did show some slight increased sensitivity, but the more important finding is that all tended to respond this way. (Note that there was little variation by education and income.)

Figure 2:

Proportion Mentioning Key
Negative Codes
by Major Demographics

What the Great Service Experiences Reveal

So much for the really bad experiences. But what about the positive ones? What can the really great service encounters show us? Well, among other things, they reveal what happens when recognition and personal acknowledgement of the individual are in place. Note that the top two mentions in Figure 3 – "they were pleasant/courteous/polite/friendly" and the "person went out of their way to assist me" – are clearly about this sort of personal affirmation.

However, the third and fourth mentions – the "person explained alternatives/recommended options" and the "person was informative/everything was explained well" – are clearly more rational in character, since they assist the customer in making wiser choices. But as we go down the list of codes in Figure 3, we discover that there are many others of this "soft" kind, like the first two – taking time with the client, welcoming/greeting him or her, listening, smiling, showing interest in him/her as a person.

The emotional elements – those that make the individual feel
important and appreciated – become critical to achieving very
high scores in the service experience.

Figure 3: Best Experiences

One of the Best Service
Experiences I've Ever Had / They
Made Me Feel Really Important

So we asked, "What actually makes an experience a 10 and not a 7?" To do this, we grouped all the main codes in this study into two macro-categories: mainly emotional attributes (the "softer" areas) and mainly professional ones (the "harder" ones). The emotional ones were those that related to the service experience itself; the harder ones were about professionalism – being efficient/quick, being informative, and answering questions well, for example. So our question was this: "To make a 7 experience a 10, do you have to add more of the hard stuff or the soft stuff?"

Figure 4:

Net Shift in Total ‘Emotional' and ‘Professional' Comments

The answer, as you can see in Figure 4, is both. But the important qualifier is that you have to add comparatively more of the soft, emotional stuff.

So why does a service experience get a better rating when the actual quality of the decision isn't being affected? We concluded that the emotional elements – those that make the individual feel important and appreciated – become quite critical to achieving these very high scores.

It shouldn't be surprising, therefore, that if you want to make an experience a 10 instead of just a 9, you have to dial up the emotional level even more – as Figure 5 suggests, by going out of your way, by greeting people when they enter or leave the store, or by finding other ways to make them feel important or valuable.

Figure 5:

Shifts in Key Emotional Areas

Ontario's Best and Worst

So who are Ontario's best and worst retailers in terms of customer experience? Who are the charmers and the alsorans? Before we reveal our findings, we need to quickly address one other issue. Our larger study of 4,000 switchers in Ontario revealed that one retail sector in particular stood out in terms of the importance placed on service reasons. That sector was hardware (see Figure 6).

Figure 6:

The Weighted Importance of Service in Eight Retail Categories
(The percentage weight of "service" in a switch)

So certain types of retailers – especially hardware stores and electronics stores – tended to be at the top of people's list when asked to think about those great, and not-so-great, service experiences. Home Hardware, Home Depot, Shoppers Drug Mart, and Metro topped our top-of-mind list of overall mentions. But what really matters, of course, is not the absolute counts but the ratios – how many good mentions for each bad one.

Figure 7: Best Ratios

As you can see in Figure 7, Home Hardware was doing an excellent job, eliciting almost five positive comments for every negative one. Home Depot, Shoppers Drug Mart, Metro, Rona, and Loblaws were next on the list, with two positive comments for each negative one. Down towards the bottom were the also-rans – Sears, The Bay, McDonald's, and Future Shop – all with less than one positive mention for every negative one. Ten Little Things That Can Make a Big Difference So those actions that signal to customers that they are truly acknowledged and valued as persons are critical. Based on our research, these actions are as follows:

  • smiling
  • listening closely to customers
  • making eye contact
  • greeting customers in a cheerful way
  • using their name
  • showing interest in their individual stories
  • being willing to spend extra time with them
  • being willing to go beyond the usual expectations forthem
  • treating them as friends
  • treating their requests as being of real importance.

These seem obvious. But what is less obvious, as we have argued here, is that these should make such a big difference. And so, the potential for triggering feelings of love and betrayal does appear to lie just beneath the surface of even the most casual and ordinary of service encounters. It's easy to discount our feelings, just because these service encounters do seem so ordinary.

This article is taken from supplementary questions asked in the company's Switching Dynamics™ retail study, a new, regular, syndicated study of 4,000 retail switchers, conducted online several times a year.

Alastair Hay is president of Hay Research International, a fullservice research company based in Toronto. He holds a BComm and an MA in philosophy. From 2000 to 2002, he served as standards director of MRIA (then PMRS). For the past decade, he has taught marketing research at the University of Toronto, Scarborough campus. Al may be reached at

VUE Magazine - January/February 2011

The above article is available for downloading and printing in PDF format.

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(Do Ads Really Persuade?)

by Alastair Hay

In a now famous playing card experiment reported by the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, subjects were asked to play a card game using four separate decks.  What the subjects didn't know was that two of the decks were normal while the other two were rigged. Playing the rigged decks was guaranteed to make you lose in the long run. Could the subjects tell the difference? As the playing progressed, the subjects displayed no awareness of the rigged system, choosing a card from any of the decks with equal ease. Instruments measuring galvanic skin response suggested a very different picture, however. Over time, little beads of sweat were detected on the wrists of the subjects as they reached for cards from the rigged deck, but not on the subjects reaching for cards from the other decks. Something was happening in the 'mental basement', something these subjects were not conscious of and had no access to. What was going on?

The Mental Basement

Cases of complex, blind calculations conducted out of sight by nature's mental sub-systems abound in nature, as evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists are bringing more and more to our attention. The mounting evidence is of an entirely different picture of the brain. Goodbye to Descartes and, so too, to much of the Freudian view of mind. The brain is about biology, evolution, adaptation and that highly-evolved 'bag of tricks' running in your mental basement. Nesting birds have evolved to 'read' the night sky and pick up the axis of rotation of the earth, priming their navigational systems for all those north-south journeys to be made over the course of a lifetime. In experiments, honeybees show evidence of what biologists call a 'group brain', deploying more of their members to the more efficient sources of food and less to less efficient ones.  No surprise here -- until we learn that no single honeybee has ever examined more than one food source. The group itself is realigning its overallresources.

Iceberg or Snowball?

We tend to think, as Descartes did, that we can look inside and observe our thoughts as they occur. These days, this view of simple self-knowledge and direct access to mind -- what is called the Cartesian theatre -- is judged to be seriously flawed. Where we once thought that the subconscious was all about Freudian repression, the world of the unconscious now is a far cry from that noisy, instinctual mirror image of the conscious world. Like the vast unexplored continent that Africa once was, it is a different place. Talking about the submerged part of the iceberg doesn't do the new picture justice either, claims the eminent University of Virginia psychologist Tim Wilson. Consciousness is not the iceberg on the surface that we see, not even its tip, but rather more like "the snowball on top of the iceberg". 

Natural selection, over eons, has produced adaptive systems, and in the process has perfected, refined and tinkered with those systems, creating successive generations of individuals more successful in the game of survival and genetic reproduction. The mind is no longer seen as a generalized, single cognitive structure, but as a vast bundle of more and more skilful sub-systems, which the noted philosopher Daniel Dennett names a "bag of tricks", ranging from simple, archaic emotional responses (like fear) to the decision-making processes of conscious thought. Computational complexity is not limited to 'thinking', but exists at many levels, not just in the 'rational' mind. For example, the human optic system sends 10 million bits of information to the brain each second. So, from the bird's complex navigation systems, to the unconscious calculator warning card-players their cards are rigged, our conscious processes are turning out to be but the icing on the cake, and the cake itself, the unconscious adaptive mind descending to us from the entire course of human evolutionary history.    

Becoming More Mainstream

And this new picture of the brain is becoming more and more mainstream. Malcolm Gladwell's mega best-selling book, Blink, offers us an interesting narrative account of the adaptive unconscious mind's ability process information and to deliver fast answers, unencumbered by reflective, slow-footed, rational decision-making. The respected anthropologist, Pascal Boyer, tells us about the world of human mental sub-systems including an agent detection system, a person file, a memory manager and a social mind, all of these running in our so-called mental basement. For some, but not all, in this emerging multidisciplinary science of the brain, the mind is a juke-box responding to this or that environmental situation with the appropriate sub-system. That attractive man or woman who caught your attention in the subway did so, not because he or she was 'cute', but because your mate selection sub-systems got triggered. You, more or less, just went along for the ride. You might recall a TV ad for Lexus automobiles in which a man, driving his car along a highway in Australia suddenly finds himself in what he calls "the perfect moment". Enjoying it all, his quiet reverie is suddenly interrupted by images of lamb chops crossing his brain as he thinks about dinner. An idle thought perhaps? Boyer would say that his food/nourishment programs were flashing yellow in his conscious brain telling him to adjust his priorities ....and live!    

Increasingly, in the emerging world of neuroscience, this is the big question: Who is really in charge?  Are we know-it-all presidents, supreme commanders of our minds and bodies, or, as Daniel Dennett has suggested, are we but press secretaries creating a sort of spin on what we think might be going on?  One philosopher has recommended a compromise which he calls the Ronald Reagan theory of mind: we are figurehead Presidents content to know what we need to know, but getting involved only when the situation really demands it.    

The Energizer Bunny and "Whassup"

So what does all this have to do with advertising pretesting?  I guess the answer is "a lot".  Early in my career I was involved in pretesting one of the first campaigns for Energizer batteries.  The agency came up with two approaches. The first talked about Energizer, the new battery that outlasts all others and the second focused on a jingle about "me and my Energizer".  Go figure: Which one do you want -- a reliable source of electric energy that lasts and lasts or a personal relationship with your favourite battery?  Seems clear enough until you remember that the Energizer Bunny has done a lot to build the brand over time (in a manner that is over and above the straight value proposition).

A while back, an unusual ad for Budweiser captured the imagination of audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.  'Whassup' ('What's up') featured a group of African Americans who bellowed this phrase to greet, not to just their friends, but anybody who happen to come along. Immediately after, they would lapse back into whatever they were doing before.  Robert Heath, the U.K ad guru who has written a dozen or so papers on low-involvement advertising, reports how many Brits were both "stunned and fascinated' by this ad. It seemed like minimalist communication in the extreme. Nobody seemed to say and do much, let alone sing the brand's praises. But as Heath reports, the ad was about implicit learning, something that doesn't strike you right away and something you're not likely to be conscious of.  As Heath reports, U.K. beer drinkers learned something entirely new about Bud: that it is drunk by all Americans not just by baseball-obsessed, white American males. 

The point? This ad cannot, in any usual sense, be said to "persuade".  Rather, it is our idea of the brand and how we relate to it that has changed. In pretesting advertising, it is this that we must also be measuring. We need to get both the rational-persuasive part right (e.g. that Energizer lasts and lasts) and but also to capture, as best we can, how we feel about it (the Energizer Bunny and what it evokes in us).

So Tim Wilson, Daniel Dennett and other theorists of the modern mind are probably right when they say that we can't just look inside and see how we're reacting.  It's about feelings too, which are notoriously fleeting, about parts of ads that affect us in many ways and perhaps uniquely as persons, ways which may not strike us consciously. Because advertising ranges across the whole of life's experiences, this means a number of things about advertising pretesting:

Ad Pretesting Should Evolve Too

1) A hierarchy of effects model of advertising must be seriously questioned. The Australian ad testing guru Spike Cramphorn has demonstrated that there is little or no evidence that such a hierarchy of ordered, sequential effects actually exists. The awareness-interest-deliberation-action model that seems to be so intuitive to us is simply not supported by the evidence. As Cramphorn reports based on models developed from a world-wide database involving thousands of ads, the best predictor of purchase intent turns out to be what Cramphorn calls "bonding", how you feel about the brand and changes in your relationship to it. As in the "Whassup" ad, are we being persuaded in logical, linear sort of way, or is it just that our feelings towards the brand are changing -- that we are slowly becoming related to the brand differently?  

2) We should be alert to capturing the full range of responses. Indirect methods of data capture -- facial muscle measurement, MRI's, non-verbal measurements -- are possible, but, at this stage, still rather impractical for routine testing. But we can do something else. We can capture response verbally in a non-directive fashion. That means not just measuring 'persuasion' but placing an emphasis on areas of brand fit as well, on the many different ways in which our relationship to the brand might be affected by the advertising.

3) We should be aware that much of ad response is implicit and fleeting. Placing direct questions immediately after exposure to the advertising merely hijacks our ability to capture 'natural' responses to it. By asking respondents to look inside and make judgments about their responses (e. g. "would you remember this ad?", "would it make you buy?'), we miss the opportunity to detect, as best we can, the full range of evanescent feeling-responses emanating from the ad. Another important implication is to avoid clutter reels, says Cramphorn and others. That all-important first response to the ad will only be lost in a sea of random responses to all those other ads embedded in the clutter reel.     

4) We should avoid the over-use of focus groups. Focus groups have their place and are often the default answer when testing time is short. But there are serious risks here that go considerably beyond the phenomenon of groupthink. As we watch an ad, are we not filtering and directing our attention to the ad exactly to those areas that are likely to be most relevant to the group (and our success in appealing to others in the group as possible new friends)? As Kim Short observed in her January Vue article, in real life people consume media independently. Yet, the Cartesian Theatre model is so tempting.  We believe that we need only look inside, examine what's there and then articulate what we 'see'. But, as Tim Wilson and others have pointed out, is this reality or is it confabulation and spin-doctoring? By using focus groups, are we missing important areas of ad response by assuming that we know ourselves and our reactions and falsely making this the basic premise upon which ad response is to be measured and understood?   

5) We should remember that ad response is local and personal.  We often speak of this ad or that ad as being funny, convincing, effective or unusual. In reality, after exposure to an ad, we find our own reasons for relating to the brand differently.  Because an ad can be said to affect the relationship between the brand and the person (what Cramphorn calls the brand-person-relationship) it is important to capture not just a sense of the generalized response to the ad, but changes in our relationship to the brand which occur as a result of it. This suggests that, in our testing arsenal, we have, not just a solid pretesting system, but that we also include a test versus control design to ensure that we understand not just the ad, but how the ad affects the brand and our evolving feelings towards it.   


  • Boyer, Pascal (2001). Religion Explained. New York, Basic Books
  • Cramphorn, M. F. (2006). "Pre-testing in the Third Millenium  2". Admap, October, 2002.
  • Damasio, A. (1999). The Feeling of What Happens. New York, Harcourt.
  • Damasio, A (1994). Descartes' Error. New York, Avon Books.
  • Dennett, Daniel C. (2003) Freedom Evolves. Penguin, New York
  • Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink. New York, Penguin.
  • Heath, R. (2001). The Hidden Power of Advertising. London, Admap Publications.
  • Phillips, G. and Cramphorn, M.F. (2006) "All You Need Is Love". ARF Annual Conference, March 2006.
  • Roberts, K. (2004). Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands. Powerhouse Books.
  • Wilson, T. (2002). Strangers to Ourselves - Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Cambridge,
  • Mass., Harvard University Press.
  • Wilson, David Sloan (2002). Darwin's Cathedral. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Alastair Hay is President of Hay Research International.   Al served on Board of the MRIA (PMRS) as Standards Director in 2001-2002 and teaches Marketing Research in the Division of Management at University of Toronto (Scarborough). Hay Research International is the Canadian Licensee of the add+impact® advertising technique used in 50 countries around the globe.

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