Getting the 7% Retail Sales Bump

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:

  1. A desire to remain physically (approach) or to leave  (avoid) the environment
  2. A desire to explore (approach) the environment as opposed to a tendency to remain inanimate in (avoid) the environment
  3. A desire to communicate with (approach) others in the environment versus a tendency to avoid interacting with others
  4. 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.


Social Media Monitoring, Black Friday and the Why We Buy

There is a wild-west mentality that dominates the corporate conversation about social media. Like the cavalier approach to the internet at the close of the 20th century, strategy appears secondary as we scramble to find meaning behind numbers and attempt to generate capital out of something that is still in its infancy. This approach is mirrored in social media monitoring, which more often than not stops with just providing data. Numbers are gathered around an area of interest, a few correlations are run between data points and the findings are handed off to the client without any emphasis what any of if really means. As we come off of Black Friday and prepare for Cyber Monday, companies are sifting through mounds of data gleaned from social media monitoring in hopes of uncovering something that will give them the absolute edge over the competition, but it means precious little if we don’t understand the deeper issues behind shopping, gift giving, consumption, etc.

Granted, data provides an answer to “what is happening,” but it fails to address “why it’s happening.” The “why” comes from anthropological analysis to data to uncover connections between data points that are normally overlooked, which provides new business opportunities and ways of messaging to customers. Anthropology works from an assumption of the inherent interconnectedness of people, focusing on culture as the starting point of investigation. People and cultures are so complex, and anthropology strives to make sense of that complexity.

Similarly, digital anthropology seeks to connect dots and uncover relationships between data points by going beyond the search for statistical significance and focusing on producing valid, actionable insights. Loosely speaking, “reliability” is the extent to which a measurement procedure yields the same answer, however and whenever it’s carried out – it’s the data in their purest form. “Validity,” is the extent to which it fives the correct answer. Imagine a spike in negative Twitter conversations in late December about your company. While the information may be statistically reliable, it lacks meaning. It doesn’t even begin to approach an understanding of “why” with any kind of depth or understanding.

All too frequently, the questions we ask and the metrics we assign to them have very little to do with the subtleties of human behavior. The data doesn’t address whom these numbers represent, what social and cultural conditions are motivating the commentary or how independent variables influence the date. The result is that we make assumptions and ask questions that are simply wrong.

To overcome these issues, an anthropologically-trained researcher (or research team) filters data through a system of questions that tie each data point back to what we know about cultural patterns and trends. For example, if there is a spike on conversations about bacon, it might be tied to agricultural conditions, but it might also be tied to the fact that Anthony Bourdain talked about bacon martinis on his show the night before. Add that the fact that people who self-identify as “foodies” have doubled in the last few years and you start to realize that the conversation isn’t so much about the product but how the product fits into the larger pattern of people living their lives. This hypothetical spike in discussion reflects the need to be part of a special group with extensive knowledge or expertise that makes them extraordinary in the eyes of other people.  And that is the place real opportunity lies.

These same principles can be applied to all social media and online activity. Whether your company is selling soap or helping people make multi-million dollar transactions, human behavior is usually more complex than the numbers alone would suggest. Discovering these connections are where the real opportunities reside.

Keep in mind, other companies have the same data you do and they too are searching the web with the hope of uncovering some hidden insight. In fact, they face the same dilemma of not being able to connect the dots between seemingly unrelated topics. Uncovering these connections and understanding the reasons behind them means uncovering new revenue streams, new avenues of messaging and new business opportunities before the competition can act. Digital anthropology helps move social media monitoring from “what” to “why” to “what next.”


Mom, Christmas and Retail

If you’ve ever shopped with a child in tow during the hectic holiday shopping season, you’re no stranger to stress, particularly during the holiday shopping season. But, retailers who apply human biology and the cognitive theory to in-store design could potentially gain a leg up in making moms more comfortable – not to mention more likely to shop and spend? Moms are busy people, juggling a multitude of duties.  It is important to remember that moms are usually the primary shoppers in a household. And shoppers aren’t always the person who consumes a product.  Because moms are juggling so many duties, it is easy to make little mistakes in a retail setting that will drive them away.  The more a store can do to provide an environment that puts them at ease, the longer they will stay and the more loyal they will become.

  1. Red is Dead. Humans are hard wired to associate warm colors with natural spaces that trigger the brain to feel calm and make shoppers want to linger. Differentiate your store by saying goodbye to traditional red and green and hello to warm colors like maroon and evergreen. The soothing colors will decrease stress and create a non-threatening environment encouraging moms to purchase.
  2. Arch this way. For centuries, arches have served as symbolic gateways, signaling the entrance into a “special” or safe place. Anthropologists refer to this as “liminal space.” Archways signal to us that we are entering a space that is different and therefore special. Moms are more likely to purchase when they are in a relaxed, safe environment and believe they are buying a unique product. Use arches in your retail space to draw attention to special offers or seasonal areas and create a safe shopping environment.
  3. You touch it, you buy it. The more often a person touches a product, the more likely they are to buy it. Touching something, even in passing, subconsciously signals ownership and draws in.  Moms, in particular, are trained to touch as a way of ensuring quality and safety of objects for their family. When we test for quality, we are committing ourselves to something and in doing so make it our own.  Use fixtures and displays that require shopper interaction to increase engagement and lead to higher purchase rates.
  4. Get intimate. Personal space ranges from 2 to 4 feet. When moms feel they are doing something intimate, rather than just a task, they will have more positive associations with the experience. To create an intimate shopping experience, arrange your displays with 2 to 4 feet of space on either side of the shopper.
  5. From a space to a place. Familiarity with a location puts people at ease and lets them take their time examining things.  Public space have no personal connection and are potentially threatening. Moms that feel like they are in a comfortable, familiar space will spend more time and more money.  Don’t be afraid to use furniture on the edges of an aisle to make it appear more homey.
  6. Sometimes “mom” is not the word. Forget about “mom” for a minute. Human beings respond to symbols.  Moms are constantly being reminded of what their social role and sometimes it can get tiring.  Periodically use symbolism in displays that reminds them of their lives outside motherhood, such as pictures of a woman relaxing or shopping for herself.
  7. Hidden treasures. People love to find hidden gems, whether they are shopping for food, cards, or anything else.  “Hide” merchandise in unexpected places throughout an aisle.  When moms find these items, it reminds them they are clever and skilled shoppers.  This will drive them to continue shopping, as they look for additional deals.

Human perceptions of space, although derived from sensory tools that all humans share, are shaped and patterned by culture. Designing your retail space to reflect these often subconscious behavior patterns will put moms at ease, which leads to increased time in the store – and increased sales.



B2B Ethnography and Rethinking the Problem

Understandably, the first question a B2B marketer is going to ask is, “why should I care about ethnography?”  After all, if they are in the business of selling steel to manufacturers, their chief concerns are cost, not color palates. Rather than getting into a lengthy discussion about how subconscious cues impact a marketing campaign and the need for emotional triggers, we will stick to the functional side of things.

Think about the experience many business people have with their IT department personnel as an example.  From their standpoint, they may do an excellent job of meeting the needs of your company, but their perceptions are grounded in the technology and their inherent aptitude with it. But do they know why some managers like computers and some hate them? Do they know how their workday is structured and how technology helps (or hinders) getting certain things done? Do they know what they use and care about on a daily basis? To be honest, most IT departments do an poor job of producing and implementing systems that fit an existing culture.  The problem with marketing, whether B2B or B2C, is that the focus is typically on the product or service, not how the product or service fits into a broader system. The important thing to remember is that they are not alone.  Particularly in B2B settings, where the needs of the customer are either assumed or grounded in the proverbial sample of one. For the executive overseeing product or process X, it is easy to become so close to a subject that one stops seeing the big picture.

Why is that? We often see one culprit. Perception. The realities of business often deal in shifting timelines, especially in our current quixotic economic state. Internal marketing and strategy departments across all industries often re-evaluate their scopes of work prematurely, basing their business decisions on reactions to the market fluctuation. There are several dangers in this type short-sited behavior. The first of these dangers is interrupting your research and/or compromising your methodology. Abandoning observation and analysis of the patterns in the rush to  start a campaign or push a new process is usually where things start going down hill.

Most people consider their analysis of the situation in question to be thorough, or at least sufficient, if they spend thirty minutes interviewing a few “stakeholders.”  For an ethnographer, work and interviewing are thought of in days/weeks, providing enough perspective to uncover powerful insights. And this is where an anthropological perspective helps.

The basic idea is that people do things the way they do and believe  the things they believe for specific reasons, and those reasons should be considered when a company considers its brand, its messaging, and its products. The decision process of an executive or foreman can’t be discovered through a brief interview. In most cases the interview results in unintentionally canned information and tells you about what they think they are supposed to say, not what they really do.  In most cases, the interviewee can’t even explain how he or she makes decisions or conceives of a company. It’s tacit knowledge that can be transferred only by interacting with and observing that you understand their world and how your company fits into it.

Another aspect of an anthropological approach is that anthropologists get out into the field, rather than remaining tucked away in formal or staged settings.  What this means is that if they want to study the purchase process at a company, they don’t just spend time with the vp of operations, they spend time with the administrative assistant, the accountant, the dock worker, and anyone else that may prove a source of information.  Ultimately, everything is potentially data and everything influences the system.

Frequently the response is that ethnography is too time-consuming or too expensive (though this is not necessarily true).  But how much does it cost to launch an ad campaign that gains no traction?  How much does it cost to build an online ordering system that is never used?  How expensive is it to create a new service only to be forced to radically modify it to do what your customers need?

Case Study: Rethinking the Audience

Underwriters Laboratories was looking for a way to simplify their website which they believed was outdated and failed to communicate well globally. They contacted me to help them redesign their web presence.

Our team began conducting a mix of international ethnography and informal discussion groups with employees, consumers and partners of different engineering companies. We began by testing the importance of certain content on the current website, but in the process uncovered a common denominator that tied the target audience together: an underlying professional culture that shaped much of how they use the site. Had we simply asked “what do you want?” we would have missed the underlying issues and commonalities that addressed not only what people say, but what they do.  Research subjects often performed differently than what they told people and it was through interacting with them as they went about their work that new opportunities and unarticulated needs emerged. Two West revealed that for the website to truly be global, it needed much more than a content change but a change in conceptual structure and usability that match how engineers around the world worked.

Focusing on the shared traits of the target audience enabled the design team to develop a single website that is universally appealing. It uncovered new ways of structuring the website, along with new business opportunities that could not have been uncovered using traditional methods.  

Principles of Corporate Anthropology 

There are some basic principles to anthropological research that should factor into any project.  Frequently, they are somewhat difficult to get comfortable with, particularly if an anthropological approach hasn’t been used in the past.  If the hurdles of getting past the accepted research comfort zone can be overcome, the benefits to your brand are astronomical.

First, cast a wide net. Recognize that everything is potentially data. You know your business and, like your competitors, you know what the numbers are telling you. But, do you know in advance what aspect of your core target’s culture will be most important to your business issues?  We often find it’s easy to assume why your numbers are coming out the way they are. We also find that these assumptions are often incorrect or only part of the picture. So, begin by observing everything and worry less about getting answers immediately.  The next step, learn the difference between observation and interviewing. And then learn how to let your subjects lead this effort for you.

Observation: take time to observe people, processes, conversations, behaviors. Many questions you wouldn’t even think to ask, but which may be of tremendous importance, emerge during this phase so don’t be afraid of quite time. Sit back and be a part of what is around you. Many people feel  threatened by this, as if they are wasting time. That’s not the case when you are conducting ethnographic research. Insights and understanding come from living and working alongside your population of interest.  Insights and understanding emerge from participating in their activities and gaining first-hand knowledge of how they see and act in their world.

Interviewing: even though your job is to ask questions, learn to be silent and let those around you guide the interview. Ultimately you are in control of the direction of the interview and that is the danger. It’s hard to listen and learn if you’re talking. You may feel that you know the solution to the problems of your participants, but you run the risk of inserting meaning and explanations that may not be accurate.  Let your participants educate you, don’t interrogate them.

Finally, pay as much attention to what people do as to what they what they say they do. It isn’t that people lie, it’s that they have idealized understandings of how they think things should be done.  These frequently deviate from reality.  For example, everyone has images of the ideal Thanksgiving, but few of us live up to the ideal.  We all want to be viewed as rational decision-makers, unaffected by emotions and cultural norms, especially in B2B settings.  But in reality, we do not escape these aspects of who we are. And it is in coming to understand these hidden drivers that produce true business differentiators.