September 11 And Why Customers Buy

911It was late afternoon that Tuesday September 11, 2001 and America was still asking, “What happened?” I was living in Long Beach at the time and was in the backyard fixing something –unable to contemplate what the next day was going to bring.

A neighbor who I had seen in the past four years but never talked to called over the fence, “Hi, mind if we talk?” There was to be a candlelight vigil in the park at sundown – none of us knew what we could do but there was a big effort by churches and everyone it seemed to come together. I figured she was going to give me the details.

“Sure, I’m Bob.”
“I’m Sue,” she put down her groceries on the damp lawn. “I have to tell you about my day. I work at CSULB as a counselor. I’ve been there twenty years. Anyways, I was in my office today at about 11, the Twin Towers had just gone down, my eyes were red from the tears. A young woman showed up and put her backpack on my desk. ‘Can I help you?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I have an appointment.’
‘You must forgive me,’ I said. ‘With the World Trade Center going down in New York City, I am a mess, I'm sure you are too. Why don’t we reschedule?’
‘I wish I could care. I need to get out of this class today.’

"I couldn’t speak. Her indifference was choking me. When I finally could speak I just said, ‘Get out of here now.’"

Sue continued. “I was more stunned by her selfishness than anything I saw on TV that morning. How could anyone be that unfeeling?”

We talked a bit more before she decided she had to go inside and call her husband. Visibly shaken from just retelling the story, I shared her disbelief.

I still do.

When 911 happened, we as a country suffered an enormous emotional loss that we still haven’t fully dealt with. Our invincibility was gone. It felt like someone had tried to take our pride and our economy away.

It was no wonder that Mayor Rudy Giuliani implored people to go out and shop. The same from President Bush. “If you don’t, the terrorists win,” became retailers' motto.

Is it a wonder we went and took out home equity loans, bought everything from cars to new landscaping, took trips and tried to buy our way back to normalcy?

No, people shop to feel better about themselves.

This isn’t some new revelation from Paco Underhill, it is what fuels retail.

It's why the truck driver who traverses the nation's highways back and forth treats himself to a great dinner one night. It's why a new mom gets the $120 baby carrier when she could have purchased the $29 one. It's why the guy working the corner gas station saves his money to buy a great sound system.

For better or worse, customers shop to give our lives meaning. To take us out of the crap of everyday life. To show us why we work so hard and yes, at times, to restore normalcy in the face of unbelievable stress.

The retailers who understand this are hiring better and creating exceptional experiences for their customers. Those who don’t are waiting for a return to the good old days...

If we as retailers can understand and accept why people shop, we can train employees that selling isn’t something to make a buck, but in fact may be what keeps us able to cope in a world of escalating challenges.

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