Retail Archetypes: IRDC Blog Interview

While quotes from blog interviewers grossly oversimplify the ideas and musing we give them, the core idea still comes through.  We will be presenting a new theoretical construct we have been working on at this year’s International Retail Design Conference. Here is the teaser:

One of the most intriguing sessions in this year’s program is Retail Archetypes, an exploration of the role archetypal settings such as “the shrine,” “the bazaar” and “the void” play in shopper behavior.

“You could say archetypes give shopping missions emotional context, and context gives shoppers a clearer sense of purpose,” says Ethan Whitehill, CEO of retail design consultancy Two West, Inc. “If you’re shopping for an engagement ring at Tiffany, a store suggestive of a fairy tale castle, then you assume a certain role with a certain sense of duty. You are a knight in shining armor.

Sociologist Erving Goffman called this dramaturgy, and it’s an important part of archetypal experience.”

We asked Whitehill’s co-presenter, Gavin Johnston, chief anthropologist at Two West, to delve further. Here’s a preview of their September 7 session:

IRDC: Tell us more about the role of archetypal settings in retail. How do they subconsciously draw shoppers into a store, then prime them to buy?

GJ: Whether we like it or not, human beings need symbolism and metaphor to function properly. Every ritual we have, every religious ceremony, every myth, every iconic figure is tied to subconscious archetypal structures we can’t escape. This pattern applies to brands and retail spaces as well. Archetypal settings prime people to buy because they are a balance between what is known and comfortable and what is new and exciting. This emotional tension results in feelings of arousal and pleasure, so customers are encouraged to approach, explore and experience wonder. Beyond this cognitive stimulation, retail archetypes can trigger biological responses, too. It’s no coincidence that we feel relaxed at Nordstrom (“the cathedral”) and invigorated at Ikea (“the bazaar”).

IRDC: Give us an example of a retail brand that draws on a specific archetype, and explain why it’s successful.

GJ: Anthropologie is a perfect example of “the garden.” It projects an idyllic, Eden-like atmosphere, setting people at ease by using organic forms, 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.

IRDC: How do you determine which archetype is appropriate for a given audience?

GJ: The fact is that you’re going to have multiple audiences coming into a retail environment throughout the day. Assuming you will appeal to a single group—or that demographic segmentation schemes matter in a real, live space—is unrealistic. It reflects what we want as retailers and marketers, not what really matters to people.

The important point is that the brand and the retail archetype align to engage shoppers in a complete experience. For example, if you look at the Disney Store, every element of the retail design helps moms, kids, fathers, etc. feel like they are part of the story line, regardless of income, age, gender or anything else. “The theater” archetype, which is clearly present in the Disney experience, gives shoppers permission to pretend and play on a stage that happens to be a store.

IRDC: Why do archetypes matter now?

GJ: According to the Richard Ellis Group, 92% of retailers plan to increase store openings in 2011. More stores means more opportunity win customers—or to lose them. In such a highly competitive, highly demanding landscape, there is little margin for error and a short time to market. Retailers need a decision tool that will help them balance the growing quantity of stores with the quality of the environments created.

There are certain basic characters and storylines that appear regularly in myth, fairy tale, literature and film—archetypes that represent core aspects of the human condition, and tap deep into our motivations and worldview. This pattern goes beyond individual people in narrative and myth; it applies to brands and retail spaces as well. It’s why Disney Store employees are “cast members.” If you want to establish real loyalty in an age where procuring goods is simply a matter of an internet connection and a couple of clicks, you have to speak to these deeper needs and symbols.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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