Staging Retail

Shopping is usually thought of in terms of work – procuring goods, meeting needs, etc. Shopping is seen as a function first and something that serves emotional and social needs second. But as incomes have grown, not just in North America but across much of the globe, access to goods has exploded and free time has increased.  And it isn’t just things we need for survival – brands, design, luxury have al begun to drive how and where people shop. Shopping has become an increasingly socio-cultural process that is used to define status, world view and a host of other things.  Granted, shopping has always been about these things to one degree or another, but in this postmodern world where we are increasingly defined by the things we own and the places we go, the intangible increasingly outweighs the tactile, the symbolic supplants the functional.  Shopping, as I’ve said before, is entertainment. Even in an unstable economy, the decision to buy is driven as much by value as it is by need (perceived and real). In fact, entertainment and a memorable in-store experience probably have more to do with a sale than the product or the ease with which people find it. Choice equates with enjoyment, turning shopping from labor to leisure.

As I have said in the past, entertainment is not the only way to look at shopping, but it does provide a different lens through which we can examine a retail space. Shopping becomes entertainment depending upon the function, need, and desire for the object being shopped. For example, shopping for bras can sometimes be a pain in the butt if it is “needed” for a “utilitarian function” (a “work bra”), but it can become entertainment if the bra is “desired” for other cultural functions. People can also use shopping at second hand stores as a form of entertainment if there is a piece of clothing that is “desired” (a cheap pair of designer jeans), yet if one “needs” to shop for work attire at second hand shops because of a limited budget, it can cease to be entertainment and fall into the world of “errand.”

However, even big box stores, seemingly devoid of emotional or cultural dimension are invariably about more than getting that 25 pound block of cheese.  As an example, a participant I worked with not long ago spent every Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at his local Coscto, even though the purchases he made “rarely added up to a car full of products,” or so he believed – in reality he spent quite a bit at Costco, quite happily in fact.  But he chose to think of himself as spending les than he did because Costco was a place of rich meaning to him, not a place of transactions.  And as we talked, it became evident that believing he spent less than he did was a way of diminishing the transactional element of the shopping trip. He used Costco as a destination. It was a cheap lunch for his kids, it was an inexpensive adventure for his children while he gave his wife a break from the kids and it was a place he could teach his children about the value of a good deal.  Costco became a setting for instilling certain cultural values in his offspring.  It was also a place where both he and his children could play (indeed, he referred to it frequently as a play ground). While this example may seem extreme, it is meant to convey a simple point: people use retail spaces in unexpected ways.  The more you understand what the retail space means beyond the obvious location of things, the more likely you are to create a repeat customer.

What this means for shopper marketing is that the best retail experiences, those with the highest degrees of loyalty and sales, are those that project a story and invite the shopper into the narrative. According to the Richard Ellis Group, 92% of retailers plan to increase store openings in 2010. More stores means more opportunity win customers. Or to lose them. Increasing sales revolves around more than getting people in the store, it involves getting them to think of the store as a destination and thinking of it as a “Place” rather than a “Space.” Place comes into existence when humans give meaning to a part of the larger, undifferentiated space. One of the most affective ways to do this is to incorporate people into an entertainment experience and directly involve them in the story.

Again, there are a host of ways to think about the retail environment beyond functionality, entertainment being one of many.  It just happens to be an approach I find very useful.  The point is to think about the space more broadly and consider dimensions that you may have overlooked in the past.  So what are some of those dimensions?


In the past, language emphasized the skill and mastery involved in shopping. There were very real, practical results stemming from skill as a home manager. With time, the primal need to “hunt” has changed. Hunting and production are no longer about survival, but about the challenge and the social capital it brings. Lines between work and leisure are blurred. Language used in advertising and inside the retail space needs to speak to the romanticized view of the hunt as much as it does the material benefits of the products. Rather than speaking about functional benefits, the focus needs to reflect on the social capital gained by the shopper and the storyline of the shopper’s life (or desired, projected life).

The Stage:

The store is indicative of a theater. Even without the direct associations with a specific story line a retail space should still conform to some very basic principles. Namely, escape, fantasy, and inclusion. The total experience speaks to cultural and psychological triggers of enjoyment and participation. People create memories within places if storylines develop and form personal connections. The stronger the connection, the more likely they are to frequent the space and to buy. A good retail space needs to be create a shared identity, connecting the company and the shopper by developing clear imagery and displays that create the sense that there is a narrative behind the facade.

Foster Social Roles:

When shopping is done with others, as a family or with a friend, it is as much about establishing social bonds and being an outing as it is about fulfilling specific needs. It has replaced the park, the lake, etc. Natural space is replaced by constructed space. Retail spaces that encourage people to interact both with each other and the space leads to a greater sense of calm and reinforces the roles people have adopted for that shopping excursion. For example, placing small sweets throughout a lingerie store (returning to our bra example) increases the sense of romanticism and allows people to “play” to the underlying storyline the shopper and her counterpart are seeking.




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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