I heard an interesting statistic the other day from a retail expert, while driving to a Barnes and Noble to pick up a birthday gift for a friend. Admittedly, he was quoting statistics right and left, as experts are wont to do, but this one struck me as particularly interesting, not for the number itself but for how it is being interpreted. Specifically, the statistic was that slowing down a shopper in the store increases sales by 7%. I have long argued that being overly efficient can indeed cause more harm than good in the store, so I wasn’t surprised to hear the 7% figure. What struck me was the fact that it was being presented as a magic bullet that required neither an understanding of the relationship between shopper and retail brand, nor the context around why we shop. The overarching recommendation was simple: slow the shopper down regardless of your brand, why they are there from a sociocultural position, or how they use your retail space. One size fits all.
The problem is that a one size fits all approach won’t work. Again, I support the notion that slowing people down increases sales, at least in principle, but if the tools used to slow down the shopping process do not meet expectations of the brand or the psychological and cultural reasons for shopping, then they simply become irritants.
My Barnes and Noble experience serves as an example. The layout of the store has changed since the local, privately-owned bookstore and Borders went out of business. More precisely, the store now carries far fewer books, has two toy sections and has islands throughout the store meant to catch the eye (and hand) of the passerby by. And yes, it does slow you down. But does it get the shopper to spend? Perhaps for some, but it doesn’t always work – indeed, it may not work very often once the holiday shopping season ends. Why? Because while the shopping practices around Christmas certainly have people primed to stop and engage with all manner of display, this may not be true the rest of the year, at least not at this particular retailer. Slowing the shopper down with items and displays that are out of context serve only as annoyances. Slowing people down, on the other hand, with spaces where they are encouraged to read or uses imagery that conveys the symbolic associations with the kinds of libraries one finds on an estate, amplify the context of the bookstore and slow down the shopper with relevant messaging, subconscious though it may be. The bump in sales doesn’t come from the slowing of the customer in and of itself. The bump comes from designing an experience that is tied to the shared condition or the retail space and underlying shopper needs, both functional and symbolic.
The retail space is an extension of the brand, not simply a place to display merchandise. As brands becomes more focused on shopper marketing, the retail space becomes increasingly relevant in how we think about marketing and design. This means that in addition to the consideration put into the initial design of the space, retailers have to think about the space as a destination, a place of pilgrimage.
Atmospherics has dominated much of the conversation around retail store design for the last decade. Approach and avoidance theory has focused on psycho-evolutionary principles. Specifically, Mehrabian and Russell propose that individuals’ reactions to environments are categorized as either approach or avoidance behaviors, which include four basic dimensions:
- A desire to remain physically (approach) or to leave (avoid) the environment
- A desire to explore (approach) the environment as opposed to a tendency to remain inanimate in (avoid) the environment
- A desire to communicate with (approach) others in the environment versus a tendency to avoid interacting with others
- Enhancement (approach) of performance and satisfaction of task performances or hindrance (avoidance) of task performances
Environmental psychologists assume that individuals’ feelings and emotions ultimately determine their behavior. The problem is that people rarely shop as individuals, even if they are alone. On the surface that may sound confusing, but the point is simple. Human beings are cultural creatures, shaped by shared experience and the unavoidable truth that we are part of a complex system of beliefs and interactions. Atmospherics addresses only the cognitive side of the shopper journey, letting the more powerful cultural drivers fall out of the equation. An anthropologically informed model adds them back in. And without those cultural and symbolic elements, slowing shoppers down will not increase sales, it will simply slow them down.