Anticipatory Joy: We’re Wired to Enjoy the Wait

Miki Reilly-Howe

One of the drawbacks of online shopping is the delay between buying and actually receiving a product. If we go through the hassle of driving to the store, physically sifting through sweaters or shoes and making small talk while paying for our purchase, at least we have the instant gratification of using our stuff immediately. Some online players, most notably Amazon, are trying to get closer to this with same day shipping and pickup options.

But is the wait a bad thing? Not necessarily. A behavioral science finding known as Anticipatory Joy may prove we’re happier waiting for something than actually receiving it.

All humans are born with a reward pathway in the brain. Its original job was to keep us alive by flooding the brain with feel-good chemicals when we did something that ensured our survival, like eating or mating. Over time, those same chemicals starting working in anticipation of an activity that would likely bring us joy.

It’s those small doses of dopamine and oxytocin that can make preparing for the party more enjoyable than the actual party or planning the vacation more fun than the trip itself. In many cases, we enjoy the pre-game activities more than the game.

When it comes to shopping online, I don’t believe our reward centers light up while we wade through page after page of rain jackets. It isn’t until we click the “buy” button that we start to look forward to receiving our package. This can be reinforced by savvy marketers who keep us posted on our purchase. Each time we get an email or text letting us know our item has been shipped or is due to arrive today, our brain does a little reward dance. It reminds us of the joy of potential ownership, which we may appreciate more than actual ownership anyway.

Companies can leverage Anticipatory Joy when the waiting gap can’t be avoided. Mini Cooper took advantage of this years ago at the height of its popularity. When production couldn’t keep up with demand, wait times between purchase and delivery could exceed three months. To keep customers’ spirits up, Mini set up cameras on the manufacturing line which they cleverly rebranded as the Mini “birth canal.”

When assembly began on your Mini, you received an email with a link to a live video feed where you could watch your car being built. You knew the minute it came off the assembly line, when it was placed on the truck and the moment it arrived at the dealership. This was a brilliant solution that kept the customer’s reward center active over an extended period of time.

More brick and mortar retailers are entering the online space to meet increasing consumer demand for convenience. If you aren’t able to offer same-day or next-day shipping, concentrate on creative ways to manage anticipation. You may be surprised at how much your customers enjoy the wait.

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