Retail and Anthropology

Someone asked me the other day how anthropology fits into retail. Since it was a cocktail party I needed to be brief. And I think that brevity is sometimes our best friend.  In short, we help retailers understand that shopping is about more than simply finding “things”.

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?

Our 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. Anthropological 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 the praises of a brand to everyone they know, creating more devotees.

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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  1. I work every day with online retailers who have created a process which they expect (hope) their customers will complete, and in the end generated a sale. I state it that way because it most cases they’ve designed the process first, mimicking in-store or catalog retail. Now this isn’t new, I could have said this a decade ago. But in line with the comments above, the smartest online retailers are thinking about their customers’ (or potential customers’) motivations, goals, attitudes, and emotions as they create online experiences. They also realize that not all shoppers are the same. That may seem obvious, but in what ways do you see websites actually well-tailored to different types of shoppers? What websites do you actually feel like the experience you are having is not the same as the experience everyone else is having? The more deeply we can deeply understand the experiences people want to have and expect to have the better armed we are to design and develop great retail experiences that delight customers (and generate sales!).

  2. Yep, pay attention, close attention, to your customers. No question about it. And these exist within complex cultural, ideological, economic, semiological and whatever else systems, these retail space, and they is anything but transparent or easy to tweak and improve.

    But I wonder where this “70% of purchases” comment comes from? I’ve seen it repeated often as “70% of purchase decisions are made at the point of sale.” Where did you get that?

    I think this is a bunch of crap, and some serious debunking. It is not a number based on any research that I can find. It is more likely urban legend, monstrously oversimplified, and in some ways an insult to shoppers who, in fact, are pretty damned careful to employ some fairly consistent and deeply social logic(s) (not, by the way, a cost-benefit logic alone) as they make their purchases. So, what do you mean, Gavster, when you write that “70% of purchases are done on a whim?” What kinds of purchases? What kinds of whim? You mean that 70% of the goodies in my shopping bag were bought because an undigested bit of beef created some sort of brain-fart that somehow stimulated some bit of autonomic purchase reflex? Are we to rely on “whim” as an explanation for why I bought the bag of peanut-butter-center pretzels? Oh. In the case of the pretzels, perhaps that was indeed the case.


    But, if you aim to rethink retail, and make things better for retailers, and if you want to get hired to help work on the making-better, then you are limiting your reach if all you can work with is the 30% of “non-whim” purchases. Or have you found a way to see a “whim” as a kind of understandable, if not economic, rationality? Did my pretzel choice, for example, have something to do with my memory of the same product (with different packaging) appearing in the Zen Center canteen after three days of vigorous and often painful meditation and too much tofu? I think it did, which takes it out of the purest of whim categories, don’t it?

    If you have developed a whimography or whimology, then good on you, and we retail researchers can start studying whimmery—how whims come about—but that should lead us back to what we were trying to do in the first place: understand the contexts that shape and direct what happens at retail. Jesus, Gavin. I know that whimmery ain’t what you are about. So get off the whim train, and tell me why I bought those pretzels.
    (I wrote this on a whim. . .).

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