The VMSD Interview

New Interview with VMSD Magazine: http://vmsd.com/content/qa-with-gavin-johnston-two-west

Q&A with Gavin Johnston, Two West

(June 2011) posted on Tue May 31, 2011Two West’s chief anthropologist talks about shopper behavior and the cultural understanding of the retail stage.
As a chief anthropologist, how do you help retailers and brands better connect with shoppers?
My work is designed to engage people in the storyline of the retailer or brand. The goal is to produce a type of conversion that’s devotional, almost religious, getting people not only to visit your store repeatedly, but to sing your praises to everyone they know, creating more devotees.

At IRDC this September, you’ll talk about 12 retail archetypes. How does an understanding of these archetypes lead to the construction of a better retail experience?
Whether we like it or not, human beings need symbolism and metaphor to function properly. So you have to speak to these deeper needs. Archetypal settings prime people to buy because they’re a balance between what’s known and comfortable and what’s new and exciting.

Give us an example of a retailer that’s achieved this.
Anthropologie. It projects a garden-like atmosphere, setting people at ease by using natural light, colors and sound. This motif is very tactile and leads customers to want to touch the products, which increases the likelihood of buying. Picking a shirt is like picking a flower. It’s wild but safe, open and breezy but closed off from the chaos of the outside world. The result is a retail environment that makes sense to us culturally and biologically.

From your work, name something about shopper behavior that most retailers are surprised to learn.
People are much less interested in ridiculous numbers of product choices than they say. Our obsession with choice is a cultural construct. We’re trained to say it, but the fact is that we don’t necessarily want it. Design is about limiting choice and directing people to take certain actions.

What retail trend do you wish would go away?
The product display without a storyline attached bothers me. In-store signage that’s simply loud doesn’t convert shoppers to buyers, it’s just loud. It’s the Fox News of retail design.

Name a retail trend on the horizon.
We’re going to see a return to unique goods and the stories wrapped around them. People are looking to be part of the storyline. Brands and retail settings that humanize their offerings are going to become fixtures for people and for communities.

You’re a former professional chef. How did you end up studying retail environments?
All cultural anthropologists have some strange path to anthropology and I’m no exception. I have a deep love and fascination with food, wine, etc., from the flavors to the physicality of cooking to the cultural meaning around what we consume. However, I don’t love the hours a chef keeps. So I decided to explore my other love, understanding why people do what they do.

Life is like a fine cheese …
“It’s rich and subtle when allowed to breathe. Sometimes it stinks, but if you have courage and give yourself the freedom to explore it, you find beauty and a chance to learn in every moment.”

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