The Perils Of Free

With fall coming up, I was reminiscing about my summer. And funnily enough, one of the lower moments had to do with free ice cream. Whole Foods had advertised an “Ice Cream Social” on a Saturday in July — free ice cream from 2 to 5pm. By the time my husband and I managed to squeeze my 8-week-old daughter and one set of grandparents into our car and drive there, it was 4:30pm. But that was still before 5pm, right? Yeah. Unfortunately, when we entered the store, there were no signs of an ice cream social anywhere. Turns out, the store had run out of ice cream earlier. What a bummer! Now all of us had to trudge back into the car without having eaten the ice cream we were all much looking forward to.

Now you might say “stop whining” since the ice cream was free. But here is the thing: Even though we certainly had no right to expect anything in the first place, Whole Foods changed the game by promising something. We were upset because Whole Foods didn’t deliver on its promise. And you know what? Only a few weeks later, it happened all over again! Whole Foods hosted an event in which people could bring back their used toothbrushes and get new ones. Guess what? When we got there, they only had toothbrushes for left-handed people left. Given that left-handed people only represent about 10% of the world’s population that was very disappointing and started to feel like a marketing gimmick.

What can you learn from this? Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that “free” will result in happy customers. For a great customer experience, you need to meet or exceed customers’ expectations. And that includes the ones you set when you promise something, even something free. So if you are running an event or a promotion to attract new customers or to thank loyal customers for their patronage, don’t raise the bar higher than you can clear it. Put yourself in the shoes of your customers and think about how they will likely perceive your actions. Then use customer experience design and communication to set the right expectations. Whole Foods, for example, should have planned (and communicated) it such that the ice cream social started at 2pm and would end when the ice cream ran out. Maybe they will do that next time. But I wised up and won’t make the effort again to go to Whole Foods. And that is too bad because it is the opposite of what Whole Foods wanted to achieve in the first place.


Details matter

Hi Maxie,
This is a good example of an experience that could have "wowed" a lot of customers, but left some unhappy, highlighting the importance of executing an idea well. In my experience these issues occur because:

1. Marketers or CX folks don't get specific enough and take complete ownership of a concept. Somebody should have really read through the copy on the offer and made sure everything was clear and asked themselves "what potential questions will somebody have about this and how well are we answering them?". Even the seemingly simple ideas need to have time and energy invested to make them seamless.

2. A lack of accountability and ownership meant nobody at the store could do anything about the issue, even when it became apparent that they were going to run out of ice cream. So, customers were left disappointed and employees probably had a bad day because they had to deal with unruly and aggressive elderly people who really wanted that ice cream :)

Thanks for sharing.

Thank you for your comment,

Thank you for your comment, Garrett. Completely agree with your points!

Left-Handed Toothbrushes

I agree with your overall point. But I'm laughing because I have been left-handed for 59 years and I never heard of a left-handed toothbrush-ever!

And, yes, I do brush my teeth (left-handed) daily using brushes I either purchase or my dentist gives to me.

This must have been a

This must have been a marketing push for left-handed tooth brushes. If you want to see them, just go to your WholeFoods' next tooth brush exchange event. I am sure they will have plenty for you to try ;-)