ROI and What Ethnography Brings to the Retail Table.

I had an interesting conversation with the CMO of a large retailer the other day – at the time I didn’t know that he was the CMO, but I did know he was skeptical about what it is that ethnographers bring to growing the bottom line.  So when he asked, “How does your work help retailers and brands better connect with shoppers?” I had to decide what my elevator speech would be.

“My work gets to those powerful, underlying drivers that really matter to people. If you understand how elements of behavior and worldview fit together in a system, you can develop complete strategies that convert shoppers into buyers and buyers into advocates. And I think that is the ultimate goal. It isn’t enough to hook people in the store, even if you leave them happy. My work, any ethnographer’s work, is designed to engage people in the storyline of the retailer or brand. The goal is to produce a type of conversion that is devotional, almost religious, getting people not only to visit your store repeatedly, but to sing your praises to everyone they know, creating more devotees.”

Perhaps it was a bit dramatic or poetic (I confess, my choice of language was fueled in part by a glass of Knob Creek), but it made the simple point that in an age of obsession with analytics, there needs to be a balance with understanding the truth of the human condition.

Retail is growing increasingly complex. 70% of purchases are done on a whim. Anthropology is an inductive process that’s all about understanding the meaning behind our actions and our ways of interacting with the world. We try to look retail through that lens.  Shopping is entertainment, it’s a teaching moment, it’s a way of establishing social bonds. Anthropology provides a real-world look at a problem or opportunity, applying social and cultural understanding to the topic, in this case the retail stage. It evaluates what people say, what they do and why they do it. Research has typically looked at individual shopper motivations. But people never really shop alone – they carry their culture and experiences with them. So, if you want to understand how and why people use, say, a clothing retailer you have to start by asking what kind of experience are they subconsciously looking for. What kind of interaction with the staff do they really want and expect?  What kind of image are they trying to project at different points throughout the day and how does that shape their decision to use on retailer over another?

In the end, it’s about uncovering this sort of information than can change the conversation with the people shopping at a particular retailer. To quote a friend, “ROI means return on insight.”  And that leads to increased revenue.

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.

Join the Conversation


    1. In the end he was. I think the trick is putting into language that is meaningful — language that a CMO is comfortable with, but also adding enough of the novelty of the anthropologist to give him license to listen. All in all it turned out well.

  1. You are absolutely right about language/choice of words, especially for those who may not be used to or familiar with the the discipline or ethnography as a method/end-result. But that’s great that you were able to convince him of the benefits and potential return.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: