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Does your business have crowd-ability?

Does your business have “crowd-ability”? Well, that may not be an actual word, but a recent trip to New York and a street vendor got me wondering why and how crowds form, and why one business may attract a crowd while a direct competitor the next block over may be a complete ghost town.

During my trip to NYC, I noticed every time I walked by this particular street vendor there was a line about 15 or 20 people deep. This vendor (pictured below) didn’t appear to be any different than the other three neighboring carts on opposite corners…keep in mind there are a few standard food vendors on the streets of NYC. These typically include one with pretzels and hotdogs, another with nuts, and another with “street meat” – usually gyro meat and rice. This particular vendor sold “street meat.”

NYC Street Vendor - Night 1
NYC Street Vendor - Night 1
NYC Street Vendor - Night 2
NYC Street Vendor - Night 2

But what they sold wasn’t all that important in my opinion. Despite the fact that one of the customers I asked said they just had better quality meat and rice, I can’t imagine the food was so fantastic that people would be willing to stand in line for 15 minutes in the rain or at 10:30 at night.

NYC Street Vendor - Night 3
NYC Street Vendor - Night 3
NYC Street Vendor - Rain
NYC Street Vendor - Rain

I was fascinated by the crowd this vendor attracted every day (and night), rain or shine and I’m now determined to find answers. I suspect this will be the first of several posts as I interview several marketing experts in search of answers as to why consumers do what they do.

My first interview is with Arizona State University Professor of Marketing, John Lastovicka, who has researched the trait and state motivations behind consumer behavior. Here’s what he had to say:

“I think we are way more dependent on other people than we would like to admit in terms of indicating to us what is appropriate behavior. The mere fact that there is a crowd suggests that there is something you should check out.”

He suspected that the customer who said the food simply tasted better was just rationalizing his decision. I have to agree on this.

“We tend to be influenced by people around us and we don’t even realize it,” Lastovicka said.

He said there have been studies done in which people are in a meeting and one person crosses their right leg over of their left leg and 10 minutes later everyone is sitting that way. When asked why, they aren’t even aware they crossed their legs.

“We all have a need to do the socially appropriate – a need to fit in,” he said. “If there’s a crowd, we need to check it out too. They [the vendor] could also have great food too, but the edge of the crowd may not even know what they are standing in line to see.”

This crowd, or pack, mentality may be much more than just achieving “cool” status, in fact it could run much deeper and date back to the time of our creation.

“We were designed 180,000 years ago and we prospered as a species in part, because people in the tribe that our ancestors came from looked out for each other and I think those tendencies are very, very deep,” Lastovicka said. “Even though I’m not living in a village, I still have those tendencies. They end up manifesting themselves in other ways. Some of them in the way we consume.”

Not everyone falls into the “pack” or “crowd” group however. In fact, some flat out rebel against it. What about those few brave souls that avoid crowd and instead choose the vendor with no line?

“We are also equipped to think for ourselves and my guess is that’s what is happening with people who don’t want to wait in line,” he said. “I would argue to some degree it requires a pretty independent person to do that, because they are walking away from something everyone else is interested in and not everyone is willing to do that.”

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